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 subvertandprofit.com, what made you bold enough to create http://sphinn.com, 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!
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.
Why is confidence so important when starting a business?
That is one of the ways we make our own luck, life is a self fulfilling prophecy. All leaders are believers, or there can be no followers/stakeholders, and therefore no competitive teams. All leaders who didn't believe turned out to be obsolete and the rest remained.
How do you balance confidence, ego, success, and drive while still having time for family life and charity work?
I don't balance it but people should.
Why is it so hard to create a business working part time?
Because your competitors work double time and they will have better information and ideas too, and take your customers, investors, and employees.
What made you appreciate the value of domain names so early on? How much more upside do you see in the domain market?
Someone offered me 25k for a domain that I had only paid $50 a year for, I was instantly sold. The domain market is really part of the overall Web 2.0/ecommerce market, which will boom indefinitely. Domains serve as company names and core ecommerce addresses, therefore any generic domain name that is high quality today will continue to rise in value. Names that are worthless today (the other 99%), will remain worthless.
For a new small business does it make more sense to focus on efficiency or scale?
Scale comes naturally to an efficient business following a plan and standard best practices. Attempting to scale without efficiency is a waste of resources.
What pieces are software are vital to helping you manage and grow your business?
SugarCRM, Salesforce.com, Yield Software, Apache, MS Office, Eudora (unsupported currently)
What books should every small business owner read?
Origin of Species, Darwin (is the essence of business fundamentals), Make Millions and Make Change, (an up and coming classic :), In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters, That Which You Are Seeking is Causing You to Seek, Cheri Huber (will help you manage success and charity work)
Does luck matter in business?
Not really, other than by birth. You make your own luck.
Why do you view obstacles as an asset?
Because all your competitors have the same ones. The more things to confuse them in dominating the market, the more things there are for you to understand and optimize. You are in the business of competing, you need items (obstacles) to compete on in order to express your superiority in the market.
Why should you start in a field that matches your experience and interests?
Because to win the long marathon you want to start better trained and miles ahead of the competitors if you have the chance.
When does it make sense to go high profile and when does it make sense to stay hidden?
When you have something to promote and when you have something confidential, respectively.
Your book said there is no reason to fear capitalism. You also support a lot of charities. Do you ever worry some business processes might have hidden costs? How do you stay so close to so many issues and stay upbeat?
Oy veh. Business process always have emerging unexpected costs, which is why you need a huge load of profit to pay for everything and need to be very efficient operationally. Close and upbeat?, I study, speak to lots of bright people, and take tea.
Market saturation tends to erode profit margins. What trends or signals make you avoid a market? What tells you when it is the right time to get in a market or to sell?
I only work in a few select complementary technology areas so I don't get diluted outside of my core competencies. Basically, have a plan and gut feeling when the stars are aligned.
Is the Internet making the typical model of business (employees in an office on certain set hours) irrelevant? What are the keys to keeping employees motivated and loyal, even if they are far away?
The market is international and therefore 24 hours, so hours are less important than doing a lot of them in an educated and motivated way. However, managing people is best done in person, not online for sure. People are motivated by working on a killer team, with a killer plan, and mostly bringing home the bacon. I like to hire only people who are so motivated and such high achievers and believers that they like equity or profit sharing to incentivize themselves even more than cash.
With the trends of cheaper technology, increasing communications, and globalization, do you think the Internet will end up causing a consolidation of wealth or will have the net effect of re-distributing it? Who stands to gain the most and who stands to lose the most?
The rich will get richer I'm sure unless and until they have programs to redistribute it like Grassroots.org and Make Change! Trust.
The Internet is making many things free, but many of them are free with hidden costs (such as destructively biased self serving advice). Do you think the move toward free will improve or decrease the quality of information being created?
Neither, its not really free, its ad supported, so ostensibly no different than pay content. To get better content pay more, like cash and not just 'ad' viewing.
How do you determine how well you can trust something you find in the search results?
I search for consensus. Unfortunately a lot of what passes as consensus is just one site regurgitating bad data from another. But I look for confirmation from experts and trusted online sources for everything I read.
With the web people may be more able to form groups and take action quicker, but many people may fight so much for certain causes that they don't see the downsides of what they create. Will media and ad personalization end up having a net positive or negative effect on society?
Just positive. Groups online learn to police themselves over time, or people flock to the sites that do. There are a lot of useless and otherwise lame sites, but they are a reflection of what people want, just like stores in the offline world.
How many charities does Grassroots.org help?
800 and ultimately growing to 10,000 that are each saving $10,000 per year, for a net benefit of $100M per year to the charity community serving the poor, sick, uneducated and otherwise needy. Grassroots.org is one piece of our charity work, whereas Make Change! Trust supports dozens of other 501c3 organizations like Grassroots.org
What percent of time and profits should go to charity?
There is no ceiling. If you ask me you can go ahead and be Mother Theresa and give it all away. Or as much of each as you can handle.
How do you decide if a charity is deserving of help?
For MCT, usually we know them personally or by reputation. For Grassroots.org they have 501c3 certificates and fit in to certain broad categories that we support. About half of all 501c3s meet our criteria.
What market today is as good to invest in as the domain market was when you started building BuyDomains.com?
The domain market. The web site market. The SEO market. The hosted or downloaded software market. Most of the best new Internet stuff. And Apple. Google. Wal-Mart. Dell.
Having coined the term domain investor, Frank Schilling is a recognized leader in the domaining field. He talks about domaining on his blog at Seven Mile.com
I recently asked Frank Schilling if he would be up for an interview and he said sure.
What makes domain names so powerful from an investment standpoint?
Several things.. When you build on a domain name you are the master of your destiny because you are not beholden to anyone else's platform. It's the Internet comparison to owning the building vs. leasing from a landlord. Internet law is new and undefined. Google and Ebay can be brutal landlords changing rules or algorithms that put you back out on the street without notice. If you own a powerful generic name or name phrase; you will get internet traffic independent of what the search engines and auction marketplaces try to do to you.
Why are [secondary market] .com's typically so much more expensive than other extensions?
Dot com's are the most readily understood domain extension. They are so powerful even my daughter knows what they are (she's 3) .. Many people will simply append the subject matter they seek with '.com' in their address bar, expecting to find products and services that match the generic keywords they entered. That world-wide mindshare has been reinforced since the very beginnings of the Internet via trillions of dollars in collective global marketing and serve to create a premium value for the extension. The marketing that you, I and others have done, has served to make .com the first extension most of us try in the browser's address bar.
Have you ever sold a domain name for a loss?
No. Even names where folks scoffed saying I overpaid at the time, look cheap in hindsight.
What is the best domain you regret not purchasing?
Cameras.com sold for 1.5 million.. That was a really tasty one.. I chickened out over a million. Wish I could get in the Delorean and go back in time on that one. Also Food.com sold to the food network in a San Francisco bankruptcy court in 2003. it went for $300,000 ish .. I should have bid 500k back then.
Is it too late to get into domaining? If you were starting today which model would you go after? Would you try to buy a few strong domains or try to own a much larger portfolio of weaker ones?
I think there are so many untapped opportunities here.. Within a few years, hundreds of thousands globally are going to be directly employed in this industry. It is early not late. This is like California in the 1960's. -- yes, it's not the 1920's anymore, but there are still mountains of untapped opportunity. I would probably focus on buying and selling, flipping up and bootstrapping profits back into the business if I had to start today. Also SEO and PPC keyword arbitrage.
Are new heavily marketed extensions like .tv or .mobi a good opportunity?
Only to flip.. If you can get something good cheaply and sell it to somebody else then do it, but I am avoiding those extensions completely. I like .com, .net, .org and the CCtld of the Country you are in because the name spaces are established, the renewal fees are certain (consistent/predictable) and because that's where the organic, generic intent type-in traffic is.
What are your favorite cities to visit? How does real estate there compare with domain name prices?
I like Los Angles and Las Vegas a lot. It's funny because those cities real estate histories have parallels to the domain industry. In Southern California you have Irvine where one man basically acquired millions of acres through the early 1900's and then sold to a large corporation in the later 1900's. Today the seller looks like a fool because he sold so cheap when viewed against the development which has occurred in the surrounding area. Yet had he not sold, none of the roads, utilities, infrastructure would be there, so the area would not really be as valuable. So if there is a comparison between domains and real estate, I think "development naturally follows acquiring the land" and "prices increase as the people come in" are the two over-riding factors.
If I am planning on developing a site, and am working with a small budget, do you think it is better to buy the .com, or to buy a .net or .org and spend the difference on more marketing and development? What about country level domains?
I like Country Code domains in Countries that have even-handed registration rules which allow all all sorts registrants to invest and develop there. Country codes I like include .CA (Canada), .co.uk (UK), .de (Germany), .br (Brazil), .cn (China), .in (India). In many circumstances Country Codes are stronger than .com. There are a host of reasons for this including currency issues, language, nationalism. I would always try to get the .com because it helps you to build traffic outside of the search-engines (everybody winds up at the .com eventually). I do like .nets and .orgs when they are priced low enough.
Years down the road when all the best names are gone and many of them are beyond the budgets of individuals and small businesses do you see outlier names like .info, .biz, or .cc getting any traction?
I do not.. I think it will be .com, .net, .org and the CC TLD of the Country Code you live in, ten years from now. If the Web extension gets approved, it could eventually unseat .net but it would take time to catch on. That forecast is assuming names get rolled out in their current way. The only other thing that could change destiny is the wholesale addition of hundreds of new extensions such as .GOOG, .MSN, .IBM, .YHOO, where every company got its own extension. It's problematic because corporate jealousy precludes adding just one or two.. and companies can barely manage their names, let alone an entire GTLD. It would take a generation to roll out and would ultimately strengthen .com relating to generic words such as Maps, Books, Shopping etc.. So while I find that kind of wholesale change revolutionary (ICANN and Verisign would resist it), it still 'could' happen.. and that would change to weaken .net and .org.
If I'm planning on developing a site when is it best to buy the core related keyword domain? When does it make more sense to create a unique word or add a common word like "hub" or "community" to the name to get an $8 domain name instead of spending thousands more for the exact match domain?
You can focus on building a great company without a great name. I like generic word + 'hub' or 'web' or 'world' style domain names. But if you build the world's biggest ceiling fan company at fanhub.com and then you want to acquire ceilingfans.com .. it is going to get much more expensive as time goes by. Names like those are going to be worth millions one day, so the time to acquire them is when they seem cheapest and unimportant to you. That's always the best time to acquire great names btw.
Are there any good $8 domain names available right now?
Yes.. but mining for them is getting harder. I don't buy anything in the available space anymore.. haven't in a long time. Too time intensive and "domain tasting" has creamed off most of the generic defensible undiscovered names.
How many ways do you categorize domains? What types of domains are the best from an investment perspective?
We have 60 main categories such as 'cars' and then 1600 subcategories including 'car accessories', 'towing', 'insurance'. etc. The best domain-names are generic defensible keyword-style (one two and three word) phrases which get some trickle of organic generic-intent type-in traffic; for nothing more than the keyword-weight, gravity and resonance of the generic words that make up the domain name.
What are your favorite spots for buying domains right now? Which auction do you like the best? What changes would you like to see to how domain names are auctioned off?
We are going through a seasonal dry-spell at the moment.. There is still an annual echo effect of expiring domain names which results from the dot-com bust where millions of folks in 2001,2,3 let their domain names expire.. the expiring name echo-period runs from November through April, so we are in the quiet season at the moment. I like Snapnames, Enom, BuyDomains, Godaddy. The auctions are presently run by for-profit clearing houses which inject themselves between expiring names and bidder registrants. One day ICANN will probably get involved auctioning new names like the FCC does with reissued airwave licenses.
What percent of domain sales do you estimate are publicly known?
About 5%.. maybe less. I was at my daughter's friend's birthday party recently and the father of one of the children confided that he sold a terrible made up brand-like sounding name for $23,000 (it was either 23 or 33k.. can't quite recall) This guy was not a domainer.. you would never hear about the sale. I get folks from regular walks of life coming up to me all the time confiding that they are part time domainers.. These are folks who have never visited a domain chat room, have never visited another domain site. Their only connection to the industry is through their registrar. It is a billion dollar business.
Many domains tend to sell for a multiple of PPC earnings. In 10 years time do you think the baseline will move to some other metric?
It already has.. No good domain portfolio has changed hands since BuyDomains and that business would have sold for considerably more than the rumored amount had the company's former owner been engaged in selling advertising alone, vs selling his names. Prior to that there was Name Development's sale to Marchex (Yun Ye transaction). No large, high-quality portfolios have changed hands since. Other sales have been smaller or split-portfolios consisting of good names interspersed with trademark issues. Individual names often sell for 100 years PPC.. No high quality domainer would dream of selling a portfolio worth potential billions to a third party for 10-12X PPC revenues. PPC is a flawed multiple because it works off a rev-share. If you buy a portfolio for 10X and it is on a 50/50 rev share (after 'cost of services' through Google Adsense) that means you sold your portfolio for 5X what Google could make with it. Maybe 3X if you exclude the amount Google shaves for smart pricing. That is so insanely cheap. Only a fool would give names away like that. If I were selling I would pick a walk away number (the youtube style multiple) or I would sell names individually. The breakup value of large portfolios will be in the billions if they aren't already.
You have mentioned that you thought search was promoting too many anchor stores vs smaller boutique websites. Do you think this creates an opportunity for other search players or adds value to topical community resources? Do you see it becoming more or less profitable to make niche websites and domain names?
I think of every domain name as an alternative search engine under the keyword embodied within the name. Search-engines by their nature can only display 5 to 10 results above the fold. As markets get more competitive that 11th result will become a different website, with a greater frequency. It's always getting harder for search engines to rank the top results.. as that competition intensifies as domain implementations get better, the domain name becomes a more viable alternative browsing experience. It's going to become much more profitable to run boutiques that sell things in the years ahead because software, fulfillment, products are all becoming cheaper as marketing costs go up. A good domain name reduces your lifetime marketing costs and increases marketing opportunities.
Are you concerned with large web companies claiming certain websites and types of websites as being unsafe to end users?
It depends how far they take it. Clearly I'd be concerned if browsers incorrectly claimed that advertising was bad and tried to block all sites with ppc ads.. While that wouldn't impact my lifestyle it would stymie newcomers and limit folks abilities to browse the web. I think the browsers are already on thin ice with a lot of the error search stealing to the right of the dot.. type your favorite website with .xom or .con watch where you go, think about where you were intending to go. That's stealing in the browser. It's unseemly to see that kind of conduct coming from a major US Corporation. I think in time there will be more freedom of navigation not less. Users (by their nature) want to be free. So to answer your question, there are probably too many sites with advertising on them for the browsers to do something draconian or to limit browsing freedoms. People would type in a website and say the internet's broken, my browser won't let me go anywhere .. too many sites would be impacted.
As the web gets more competitive, I believe any single sign of quality will likely have less of an overall effect on a website's position on the web. Do you believe that is true for domain names as well, or will everything being so gamed only increase the value of domain names?
I think probably the later.. Mark Twain said: "History doesn't repeat but it rhymes" .. The past may not be a true indication of the future, but domain names 'are the Internet'. You need a domain for email, in fact the only constant since the dawn of the commercial internet in 1993 (Netscape 1) has been the domain name. If you feel comfortable investing in anything related to the Internet it should be a generic domain name.
What makes Riesling so good?
I was picking up dinner at www.pappagallo.ky they have this new house wine from Germany.. very light refreshing.. good lunch wine. Darn, can't remember the name - Maybe if it ended in .com! :)
Thanks Frank. Check out Frank's blog to read his latest insights on the domain market.
Rae recently posted a 5 person interview about link building that is well worth a read. 5 experts are interviewed. Each answers a set of questions without seeing the other answers until after the interview.
I worry less about the threat of mobile than I do about "specialty browsers" or "surfing channels" being built into the X-box, Wii, and other gaming and home entertainment servers. John Q. Public will accept channeled/gated browsing and, worse, full-blown Push technology because he's lazy. Searching is work and, to make it worse, he isn't very good at it.
Brian recently revised my salesletter, and I asked if he would be willing to do an interview. He said yes, and so it goes...
Is it possible to write great sales copy for something you are not interested in?
Certainly. Most copywriters do this, and they compensate by doing tons of research and putting themselves in the shoes of the prospective buyer. But I think itâ€™s always much easier to sell something you believe in and have a personal affinity for.
Is it more important to understand the audience, author, or product when writing sales copy?
Audience always comes first. While having a strong understanding of everything else is important too, missing the mark with the audience is the number one reason why copy fails or underperforms.
I have been told that traditionally red is a great headline color for headlines. Why did you opt for blue on my sales letter? What about the Georgia font?
Red headlines have been used quite a bit for several years, and the reason why is because they tested better. Thereâ€™s a growing backlash against a lot of copy elements that have been effective in the past, basically due to overuse and misuse. Plus, color and font selection are important to the overall impression you want to convey with your product and brand.
With SEO Book, I thought it was important that the sales letter have a more sophisticated presentation that matched the overall look of your site, as well as the stature your book has attained. You canâ€™t mix in testimonials from the likes of Wharton School and MBA-level professors and Seth Godin on a cheesy page that screams hype. SEO is moving away from an Internet marketing tactic and becoming a business essential, and the presentation of your sales page should mirror that respectability.
You broke my sales letter down into a letter and FAQs and also had a mini sales letter which people see if they click an early buy now link. What is the purpose of doing that, and what effect does it typically have on conversion?
The purpose of the â€œoffer landing pageâ€ is simply to quickly communicate the full offer to those who clicked through early in the copy, and to reinforce the offer to those that went deeper in. Typically youâ€™ll have less people abandon the sale than if you sent them straight to a PayPal landing page.
How important are getting testimonials seen for making sales? What are the keys to getting them read?
Testimonials are crucial. They communicate crucial social proof of the value of your product and offer. However, just as with everything else, they have been abused and sometimes fabricated. I tried to tone down the presentation of the testimonials a bit, and chose people that had high credibility. We could probably test different approaches here, because itâ€™s a tricky area that is nonetheless vitally important to conversion.
Your blog is one of my favorite to read. Many longstanding copywriters have started blogging, but come off as boring. How did you grow your reach so quickly?
Well, by applying copywriting techniques to blogging, I accomplished two things. One, I created my own little unique niche by bringing a new approach to both copywriting and blogging, and two, I got a bunch of generous bloggers as readers who helped spread the word. I owe it all to them.
When blogging, how important is it to give the perception of being open? How important is it to be easy to identify with?
Blogging is a lot like real life, which I guess is why we call this social media. If youâ€™re not perceived as honest or worth associating with, people simply wonâ€™t bother with you.
What is the difference between writing traditional copy, writing a blog, and writing for social media like Digg?
Well, they all have one thing in commonâ€”the content has to provide beneficial value to the reader or it will fail. Traditional copy is designed to sell, writing for Digg is for traffic and links, and blogging for business is a combination of both. Beneficial value comes first, but all three types of writing will be more effective the more you connect with the reader on a personal level. Conversational copywriting has been around for longer than people thinkâ€”some of the old school copywriters of the early 20th Century were masters at it.
With so many people writing sensationalistic headlines for social media, do you think social media has much of a life left to it? Do you see many bloggers invariably undermining their credibility by trying to get noticed too much?
A good headline makes a promise to the reader that the content delivers. Blow that, and youâ€™ll damage your credibility. I mean, whatâ€™s the point of writing an attention-grabbing headline if you canâ€™t follow through? Again, the competition for attention is increasing the quality of content overall, because quality content is what works. People who try to take shortcuts will fail.
When blogging, how do you balance writing for teaching vs writing for links vs writing for sales? Do you need to have much reach with a blog before you can have much an affect or significant profit?
Writing to teach can be writing for links and sales, if done correctly. As for reach vs. profit, it depends on what youâ€™re selling. A realtor with a killer blog only needs to attract two or three clients per month to make a nice six figure income in most markets. Selling low-priced widgets requires more volume, as do advertising business models.
How often should I consider writing or rewriting my sales letter? How do I test the effectiveness of a rewrite?
I would never suggest rewriting something just for the sake of it, if itâ€™s working. I was a bit perplexed by the recent copy overhaul to the 37signals home page. But itâ€™s important to keep your finger on the pulse of your market, so you can anticipate necessary changes before your sales slump. I think thatâ€™s where we were with your old page.
Testing is crucial. You should test the new sales page against the old, and then also consider testing certain elements within the winning page to see if it can be further optimized for conversion.
Thanks Brian. I just started split testing the new sales letter using Google AdWords, and we should have results by the end of February. If you want to learn more about copywriting check out Copyblogger today.
DigitalGhost is an odd fellow, in a good way. Always a blast to chat with, and a smart guy who gives me lots of good advice. He recently started blogging again, and that prompted me to ask him from an SEO.
Why the name DigitalGhost?
Two reasons. I was making money ghostwriting when the "Digital Age" came into being. CompuServe, Prodigy, etc. Everyone chatting online seemed to be just phantoms on a screen. Digital ghosts if you will.
How did you get into SEO?
I was selling computers and a friend of mine created a website, which was back in the days when maybe one person in fifty had an email account, and he asked me to look at it. The site had been live for six months but it wasn't getting any traffic.
I noticed that the title for every page was new_page_1. I changed the titles to reflect what the page content was about, created a footer crammed with keywords for every page and boom. He started getting crazy amounts of traffic. Within a month I had 4 sites built and I was hooked. I quit selling computers three months later.
A woman that lived next door to me had a wine site and asked for help getting it to rank. She had a friend that had a site about 900 numbers, and he had a friend with a site about;
I was an SEO for almost two years before I knew what it was called.
Does SEO, as a field, have much life left in it?
Of course it does. Search technology is still in its infancy. As the technology improves SEOs will be needed to help business owners deal with the changes. I believe that the technology will reach the point where the demand for SEOs is greater than it is now; especially as fewer and fewer of the self-taught SEOs are able to keep up with the technology.
Keep it simple. Know your market and know the language your market uses. Banking on your ability to successfully market a new word isn't a strategy; it's a shot in the dark.
Why is linguistics important to SEOs and other internet marketers?
Linguistics offers insight into how people think, how they choose words and phrases, word dependencies, syntax, semantics, structure etc. The science is integral in search engine algorithms.
Are search engines matching keywords or concepts? What is the difference between the two? How might a shift in this change the SEO process?
They're matching keywords. The keyword "war" is quite simple, the concept of "war" isn't currently understood by the major engines. I could write an entire site about WWII without mentioning "WWII" and the engines would never rank it for "war" unless it acquired links with "war" in anchor text.
How might it change the SEO process? SEOs rely on keywords because the algos rely on keywords.
What are the most important books you have read about language, thinking, or communication?
There aren't any single books that I feel are that important. A single idea, or several, contained within a book may be important but I think it is dangerous to assign too much importance to any one book. I place quite a bit of importance on reading many books and weighing the ideas found within them. I tend to think it is bullshit when someone says, "that book changed my life".
What other books significantly helped shape you?
Now we're getting somewhere. I remember reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and hating the kid that pulled wings off flies and threw stones at horses. Old Yeller taught me quite a bit about strength of character. Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn taught me about friendship. Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys, all of them had lessons. Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, Burning Daylight, more lessons.
I think we learn the lessons that shape us the most when we're young. But most importantly, the latent lesson that I learned was, "love words". All of those authors taught that lesson, though I never saw it written.
What drinks have helped shape you? What is your favorite Tequila?
Well, beer has added about twenty pounds of shape. As for tequila, just about any AÃ±ejo works.
You recently posted about sensationalistic headlines which have nothing to do with the content of the post. As more publishers come online, search engines and efficient ad networks commodify many of them, and more people are fighting for a finite amount of attention, will the web devolve into a series of half thoughts marketed by sensationalistic headlines? Or what publishing business models do you see as sustainable?
The web is too large for any single bad practice to ruin it. Most of the web is nothing but half-assed thoughts now and people still find it useful. As the need for better technology grows it will be met. The "cry wolf" headlines will meet the same fate as the little kid in the story.
As long as publishers focus on meeting their users' needs current models are sustainable. As soon as publishers shift the focus to their own needs they may as well quit. I can't count the times a site owner has said, "I need more traffic". How come they don't ask, "What do my users need"?
What are your thoughts on tagging and the like? Will it make search any more relevant, or is it an over hyped fad?
Tagging hasn't helped relevance a bit that I can see. Self-governing systems typically end up as nothing more than a fuster-cluck. People that insist that the more people that use a self-governing system, the better the system will work, need to have the Pareto Principle etched into those rose colored glasses they're wearing.
How can social media and other popularity based metrics promote the creation of quality content while maintaining a reasonable signal to noise ratio?
Editing. It would help if people didn't equate "more" to "better". Does Amazon need 600 book reviews for a single book? Does the world need 300 videos of people dropping Mentos into Diet Coke? You can increase the signal to noise ratio by limiting the number of people that can broadcast eh?
What is the difference between a horse and a donkey? Which animal is generally more entertaining?
A donkey is smaller than a horse and it has longer ears. Cross a mare, (female horse) with a Jack, (male donkey), and you get a Mule. Donkeys are more entertaining. They're like big dogs and they make excellent pets. Nothing in the world sounds like a donkey braying, except for the Jackass Penguin.
It seems Google in particular is placing a lot of weight on domain age and link authority related trust at the moment. Many people are leveraging this to spam Google via video hosting sites, social media sites, and attempts at mainstream media to get into consumer generated media. Where do you see Google going next with their algorithms?
Semantic search. Nofollow is a bust. They created this huge link mess with their damn green bar and an easily exploited algo, and then they tried to clean it up with something as pathetic as nofollow.
You post a lot about word and link relationships. How do people typically mess up internal linking?
By creating navigation that looks like a keyword list. By ignoring concepts and focusing on keywords. By thinking in terms of pages instead of thinking about an entire site. By neglecting in-context links.
As example, a client told me he had a site about "new and used trucks". According to his navigation text, his site was about truck accessories. Every truck model had 10-30 accessory links. Great text for accessories, poor text for trucks and he was wondering why he wasn't ranking for new/used/ trucks/ city/state.
Do you see search engines as moving beyond advertisement based business models? How might they change going forward?
No, it's easy, it's passive, and they have the whole world creating content they can slap ads on, why should they change?
Do you eventually see search engines as becoming more powerful than governments?
No, but I foresee governments using search engines to become more powerful.
How long might your current blog last?
No clue. Longevity isn't a good metric for quality though. Not that I'm saying I have a quality blog, but it's my blog. I can name some pretty pathetic directories that have been around for a long time. But I won't.
Danny just launched a new blog and it looks pretty damn good. So maybe the search engineers will learn that it's about relevancy, not domain age, link age, link authority or any of that other bullshit they throw out there to keep people distracted from the fact that it's all about what? Relevancy. Or is it the SEOs that keep throwing out dumb shit like "link age" for discussion? ; )
What are your favorite SEO Tools?
Whiteboards and a proprietary pattern analysis gizmo. SEO for Firefox is pretty damn good too.
What are your favorite non-SEO blogs?
Drivl is the only one I can think of at the moment. But I read a lot of online newspapers. Oh, and you can download the N.Y. Times reader now which makes reading the news a lot nicer.
Do you see a day when search moves past being primarily weighted on link authority?
Yes I do. Search engines like Hakia are already moving away from link-citation as the most important metric.
What might the next major metric be?
Wait for it, this is good, relevance. Yes. Relevance. Three thousand people linking to "white" using "black" as anchor text shouldn't make black rank for white. Relevancy isn't a popularity contest and I don't care what type of spin the Googlemeisters want to put on it.
What is the biggest piece of the concept relevancy that you think most SEOs overlook?
Not knowing when to quit. Carrying the concept relationship too far. For example, having a site about greeting cards, and creating a subdomain for birthday cake decorating and linking it from the 'birthday cards' section of the site. And then creating another sub for 'catering'. And since catering is 'related', may as well have a sub for 'entertainment'. Why not games? And toys? Toys can be... gifts... and damn near everything can be a gift so now the site has books, candles, ties, hats, pens, tools, Viagra, baldness cures and vacation packages.
SEOs have heard 'content is king' for so long that it's second nature to cover every possible phrase with a targeted page. Stop it already! Small, targeted sites do well too.
Scott Smith, also known as Caveman, is one of my favorite personalities in the SEO business. I recently have done work with him on numerous projects (look for an official announcement of some sort soon), and Scott always seems to have a slightly different (and far more brilliant) angle than I on many SEO and marketing related issues.
I wanted to interview him for probably at least a year, and I finally got him to say yes :)
What is your background prior to getting into the SEM space?
Oh, you're start off by making me feel like a caveman huh? Lemme see, I spent 20 years in marketing at several large ad agencies in New York, working on a variety of very well known brands. As I got to thinking about my career, I was faced with the prospect of becoming a lifer in the ad world, because once you get into profit sharing you never leave. I couldn't see spending another 20 years doing the same work I'd already done for 20 years, so I off I went "in search of..."
In search of what?
Hehe, I didn't know really. Just something new and interesting. I was working on a book. I also like outdoor photography and won a big photo contest put on by Canon cameras [Aaron, can you insert my affiliate code there please?] ;), but photographers don't make much money so that dream didn't last long.
Anyway, I was researching a book project, and in the process, became completely mesmerized by the Web (that was back in 1998). Next thing you know, I was trying to figure out how to code a Web site. I'm still not very good at that. I don't think a single one of my sites actually validates. Shhh, don't tell anyone. Actually, a few of them do. You gotta watch out for footprints you know.
Now I run a bunch of Web sites and it's all great fun.
How do offline brand, marketing, and public relations experience relate to search marketing?
They are hugely related in my opinion. Classic marketing training and analysis teaches you to see things...connections and opportunities that are easily overlooked by others.
Web marketing is really no different from other kinds of marketing, conceptually - only the tactics and implementations are different. The engines are all about trying to show SERP's that best address the interests of the searcher. They use on-site and off-site data to sort out best pages to show, just like we do in the real world. For example, to choose a restaurant. I look for reviews (both professional and amateur, both of which are external to the restaurant), I consider how long the restaurant has been around and if it's busy most of the time. I ask personal friends. I look for signals of quality and reference, and context matters. It's very like how the algo's function.
So when I build a Web site, it's like building a good restaurant. You want a nice faÃ§ade and lighting. Good recipes. Good ingredients. Good presentation. And you do what you can to get good reviews - like PR, talking to people, inviting VIP's, getting mentions in local gossip columns, whatever.
Gee, are we talking about search marketing or restaurants?
Not sure, but I'm getting hungry.
In my old advertising and marketing days, I'd always start by collecting deep knowledge of the product or service, and of the category. That included always trying the product for myself, or getting some I know and trust to try it.
Then I'd work with the brand marketing people to ensure that the product or service was up to snuff and functioning properly according to its goals, and that brand or line extensions were in place to address various users' needs or tastes.
We'd learn as much as possible about what the users think, and what they want. Car manufacturers can put all the technology they want into a car, but if a consumer wants a RED car and the manufacturer doesn't offer RED in that model, the sale is lost. You gotta know stuff like that. Knowing the category is essential to maximizing potential revenues and profits.
When, for example, you've got a real estate Web site, here's the question: Are you selling homes? Or are you selling status, comfort, the quality of local schools, a finished basement, proximity to the train station, or what?
Or, if you're selling VoIP, are you selling phone service or are you selling better ways to connect to friends.
If you understand the importance of knowing all this stuff, and make it your business to know the answers in your categories, it makes selling and positioning a brand within a Web site whole lot easier. Just like it makes creating great advertising easier. It informs everything you work on, from the name of the sited to the color of the site to the way the site is organized. All of which contribute to achieving the ultimate goals of search marketing.
And what are those in your opinion?
Increasing revenue and improving ROI.
So for you it's all about the understanding the customer, and profit?
No actually, hehe. I haven't even started talking about competition. That's a huge area. When you really learn a category, and learn what the consumers really want, and what sorts of decision trees they employ, it's tremendously helpful. What if, knowing all of that, you then see that some sites are completely missing certain important areas of appeal? Bam! New site idea.
And the Web is so great because site ideas and page ideas can get so granular that you can go after targets within targets within targets, and you have the option of doing that with one site or many.
Here's an easier one: What if you see a bunch of competition, and all of 'em are doing some things right, but not a one is doing it all right? That happens ALL THE TIME.
Do I need to be technical to be a good SEO? Do I need to be a good marketer to be a good SEO?
I dunno. You got any bagels? I'm still hungry.
C'mon now, answer the question.
I think that there are lots of ways to skin a cat. There are successful engineer/programmer types out there who've made a fortune with little or no knowledge of marketing.
Up until recently it was tougher for non-techies. But now, I'd say it's becoming easier for those who are savvy about marketing or promotion, as long as they have someone who can build an SEO-friendly site ... or at least avoid building an SEO-unfriendly site. Lots of those out there.
It also depends on if you're talking about smaller affiliate sites or bigger company/branded sites.
If you want to be really successful with the bigger stuff, I don't see how you do that in the future without strength in both tech and marketing.
You've almost got to understand Web site code, and at least the basics of search engine algo's. That doesn't mean you have to be an engineer but it sure requires a head for tech, or math, and algorithmic concepts. At the same time, it is a HUGE advantage to understand consumer marketing. You know, stuff like user behavior and motivation, decision trees, analytics, purchase cycles, buying patterns, brand development, price/value relationships. Just one major insight in any of those areas can dramatically grow revenues, especially on the Web, where opportunities are so plentiful.
And as far as Web sites go, rapid-fire communication strategies (in the way TV and print and billboard ads must grab you in seconds or lose you), ease of use and navigation, hierarchies of importance within a category, abandonment issues, conversion issues, etc.
Obviously, you can put sites up and make money without knowing much about any of that stuff. But those who know both tech and marketing have what I perceive to be an obvious advantage.
And as the Web grows up and the big money rolls in, man, you better have some kind of edge.
Speaking of which: As more of the offline brands aggressively move online how will that change the SEM space? Will individuals still be able to compete against major corporations with affiliate sites, personal blogs, etc.? Or will launching such sites be nothing more than a blissful excursion?
One thing it's been doing for a while now is pushing up PPC prices. The natural result of that is that companies who were scared or uncertain of organic search are getting more into it all the time. I can't attend a business event any more without hearing people talk about SEO or SEM.
As for smaller players competing, certainly there will always be some clever individuals getting rich. But, it's going to keep getting harder if you're a one-man-band. Small businesses on the other hand will always have an advantage or large companies, in some respects: Speed and nimbleness, local knowledge, face-to-face contact, high levels of expertise in niche markets (most of the world is niche markets you know). These will always be advantages for the little guy.
In the offline world, small business has always accounted for far more of GNP than big business. I think the number is something like 70% or 80% in favor of small business.
And getting back to the tech and marketing theme, little guys on the Web who know tech AND marketing will have the edge over those who don't. Same at all levels of competition. It's like a matrix, with size or lack of it on one axis and knowledge on the other. You can be large or small, but you the more knowledge you have, the better off you are.
Do you use any personal sites as practice for the game, or are all of your sites earners?
If there are ways to gain advantages then I use them. That applies to sites too.
Why would a successful affiliate marketing SEO consider working for SEO clients?
I give up. Why?
Umm, I mean, you.
Oh. Hehe. Well I don't think of myself as an affiliate marketer. Just a marketer whose focus for now is the Web.
The funny thing is, now that I've had a break from my old marketing career, I miss working with clients. And I rarely see a site that doesn't need both marketing and SEO help. Since I'm in a position to offer both in a highly integrated way, it seems like a good idea for me to do that. Plus, I'm a big believer in diversity, as long as you stay within your area of expertise.
You have often mentioned trying to position your site and brand near at least one authority in your vertical. What are some litmus tests for how easily you can align your site with existing sites? Which authoritative sites should you consider trying to align your site with?
I think it's critical. And it's one advantage that the smaller players are losing, which is a major failing of Google these days. But in a way the social Web is offsetting this I think. Anyway, yes, the SE's and especially Google are a lot about proximity to core sites. Read the papers on TrustRank and seed sites. You've got to get in with other sites that matter in your niche. And this gets back to an earlier question. Getting integrated into your category is a WHOLE LOT EASIER if you pay attention to two things: Site quality, and marketing of all kinds...social, viral, niche, PR, and basic branding even.
Do search engines try to match site profiles with sites in a category? How would that work, and what might they look for?
I don't know. Do you know?
Well, I have my thoughts, but this is your time.
Tell me your thoughts.
Well, I think Google does what you're asking about, sorta. Actually let me say that we behave as though it's true, which is not at all the same thing. But sometimes it helps to draw conclusions, and then behave in accordance with an assumption, for simplicity's sake, if the assumptions lead a team to the place you want to go.
Let's take both technical and comparative approaches to it.
Technically the search engines have a number of tools at their disposal. I hate always saying this, but the caveat here is that I have no way of knowing what the SE's are really doing. I'm just offering educated guesses.
So, I'm of the opinion that Google use semantic analysis of a kind related to their CIRCA technology.
Ever noticed how sometimes, especially for newer sites, you can't rank for a main keyword but you can for secondary terms? Using semantic analysis, a phrase that is used in all documents of a Web site could be filtered out from a sites pages for ranking purposes (or at least I assume so, having read the papers). So immediately that raises lots of possibilities. Let's say that you run a simple site about "hiking boots." If the site is rather "me too," and or doesn't have much link juice, Google may filter our "hiking boots" as a rankable phrase for that site, so you're only left with "small hiking boots" if you're lucky, or maybe only "small brown hiking boots."
But here is an second possibility. You have lots of link juice, and from other hiking boot sites, no less. Whoa. Now all the sudden, G starts ranking you on page three for "hiking boots." If you see that happen, you know you're in the game.
And just to stay on track, how does that relate to matching site profiles with a category?
Well, it doesn't exactly. But it does sorta. It relates to LocalRank. What if you don't have links from related sites, and as a result, maybe you don't get past the semantic filters.
But, that's not all. G knows that of the sites that rocket to the moon in terms of link pop right after launch, many are spam but some are not. So, how hard would it be to take a "cluster" of sites (read about LSI again if you don't know what that means) and associate that cluster with growth patterns, LocalRank patterns or any other number of patterns?
Answer? I have no idea. But it seems eminently logical to me.
Listen, part of search marketing is analyzing existing data and observations, and part of it is understanding the mindsets of the search engines and sussing out what they are likely thinking about. And this is also where my marketing side kicks in. Why wouldn't a site that really wants to rank just assume that everything just mentioned is true? What's the worst case? That you are wrong and kick the competitions' butts anyway? Hehe.
And here's a related question for you: What if the SE's are simply mimicking all that is there? What if it becomes a self-reinforcing circle, with the top sites holding all the power. Where does that lead you, in terms of finding an edge? Almost to the same place, that's where.
This line of thinking relates to Google's new customizable search product too, I think. They are very clever about getting people and sites to provide information on perceptions of quality. If you have top sites in a given vertical using Google's new customizable search engine on their own sites, and defining the search universe, now you've got trusted sites providing Google with mountains of new information about "best sites" out there. It scares me frankly.
What makes a page look overly optimized? What tools can you use to improve on page optimization without hurting the credibility or conversion potential of the site?
Hey man, I rely on you for what tools are best to use. But as far as sites or pages being overly optimized, I've been yelling about this issue in my role as a mod over at Webmaster World, pretty much since before Google's Florida update several years back. Actually I guess that means was yelling about it before being a mod. Whatever. If, for a given page, you line up your backlinks, title, description, H1, high level text and internal links against a single two word phrase, unless you've got major link juice, you're likely going to run into some trouble there.
The tricky thing is that, and the papers tend to confirm this, the way the algo's work is sorta like a point system. You can get positive points and negative points, and also yellow and red cards like in soccer. Very few things are absolute. So the SE's try to assign levels of probability to things they encounter and an easy way to do that is to assign positive and negative points and get a sort of overall score.
So, if your site or your page does some things that yield negative scores, your rankings can suffer to a large or small extent in the rankings, and you have no idea if you're just not ranking as well as you'd like, or if you're actually ranking less well than you should because of crossing one or more important lines ... infractions that creative negative points so to speak.
How important are unique page titles and Meta description tags? What type of sites should hand craft each? What types of sites can automate creating them via formulas? Where and when is duplication acceptable?
Ah, another pet peeve of mine. Everyone's running around these days saying that titles are still hugely important and that Meta descriptions don't matter much. Blech. Of course descriptions matter. Is it logical that author created titles are hugely important, and author created descriptions not at all? Not to me. Plus we see evidence that descriptions matter. Slight evidence, but evidence. And, we see a lot of evidence that getting them wrong can hurt you. The duplication and "over optimization" issues again.
But all that aside, people don't seem to get that these descriptions are used by the engines in the SERP's. Good descriptions affect click through's in positive ways. What else does a person need to know? It's so fundamental yet so many people dismiss them. It's beyond me.
No worries. Scott, you mentioned in a recent interview on WebmasterRadio.FM with GoodROI that you build links to achieve objectives. What are the important objects every Webmaster should consider when building links? What links should they wait to build? Which ones should they build right away?
Personally I think it depends on the site and the category. We build links to achieve a variety of objectives and it varies with the needs of the site. In most cases, getting more traffic is an important goal. So is developing a presence in key pockets of a category, sometimes. If you're building a brand, you lean one way, if you're really just going for traffic, you go another way. And if you simply want to build link juice for a site, that implies yet another approach. This is such a huge topic it's hard for me to know how to summarize it very well.
One thing I do think is worth noting is the process and chronology of building links with respect to Google's so called "sandbox." Getting back to that question about does your site have to "look like" other sites in category, think about this. Google knows that different kinds of sites have different kinds of patterns. This applies to both site structure (an e-commerce site looks different from a directory site structurally), and link patterns (blogs launched by well known personalities have very different link accumulation patterns than new hobby sites launched by amateur hobbyists). It's also not hard to imagine that Google can cross-reference this sort of data. So, if a site displays a certain kind of link development pattern, which encompasses both speed and rate of accumulation, and nature of the linking sites and pages, it tells them a lot about what kind of site it might be, and how important or "trusted" the site might be.
So rather than spewing out lots of tactics, I encourage people to consider all of that and let that thinking lead them to developing strategies that make sense for the kind of site they want to have.
Do you ever see engines moving away from using linkage data as a core relevancy criteria? What other signals might they promote, and how are you preparing for future shifts?
Well again, that new customizable search functionality that Google just made available to sites might be viewed as a step away from links, although it's still a site voting mechanism. Then there has been all of the talk about toolbar data. I'm just not even close to convinced that it's very usable. There are so many ways click data can be interpreted. As just one overly simplistic example, if a user lands on a site and stays only a 12 seconds, and then moves on to another site, is that a bad site? Well, not if it was a brilliantly designed directory that solved the users needs that fast. Or, what if a very good site somehow lands in a stream of users that are all on drugs. Does the fact that they stay on each page for a long time mean the pages are great, or that the users can't see straight. I know, these are wacky examples, but to make a point. Hopefully anyway. Errr, maybe not.
As a self-professed algo junkie, how do you prevent yourself from excessively worrying about the effects of making small changes? How do you prevent over thinking yourself?
That's a great question. In my mind anyway. It's a personality defect of mine to get too into all of this sometimes. Hmmm, I think you knew that already didn't you?
What I try to do is get clear on the value and context of a given SEO/SEM element by scanning the marketplace and then doing some testing. But my rule of thumb is, I try to be 80% confident or more, and open to new information. I don't need to be right all the time. Just more often than not. It's like my basic approach to the algo's. I love looking at it all. Partly I enjoy the challenge of figuring it out, but it's mainly about business results. So, we develop our working assumptions, and treat them like gospel until we see evidence that causes us to challenge our assumptions. And the truth is, I don't even care if I'm right. Only that my assumptions lead the sites to good places, and don't get me in trouble. That keeps me sane, more or less.
But it can get me in trouble. Before I was a mod at WebmasterWorld, I felt more free to throw out ideas and opinions without qualifying them as such. Partly I like to share my thinking and experience to help younger Webmasters, but also, tossing out points of view that are wrong is a great way to find out when you're way off base. Only now if I do that, I get a lot more snarky comments, so I'm a bit more careful about expressing opinions. But people would do well to remember that in search almost all of it is opinion, at best based on experience, observation and hopefully a little intelligence. The best thing for everyone is to get in there and get some experience of their own.
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 www.his-site.com 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.