An Interview of Branko Rihtman (AKA: SEO Scientist)

Jul 28th

We recently interviewed Branko Rihtman. He started working in the industry in 2001, doing SEO for clients and properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, he realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at http://www.seo-scientist.com.

How did you get into the SEO space?

Completely by accident. When I was done with my compulsory army service, I knew I would rather work in an internet based company than, say, dig ditches. So I went into a local internet portal and searched for “internet companies in Jerusalem”. One of the replies was from an SEO company. They offered me a job with flexible hours and a possibility of working from home. Since I was about to start university, working from home looked particularly interesting. I ended up spending 8 years in that company.

When did you know you were going to "make it" in SEO?

Ummm never? I don’t think any of us ever “makes it” in SEO. Yes some people are more popular than the others and some get invited to speak at more conferences than the others but that is most certainly not a measurement of “making it”. SEOBook forum is full of people that are more succesfull and savy than the majority of SEOs out there, yet very few of them are well known in the general marketing circles. One of the things I like about SEO is that it is constantly “making” you and “breaking” you. If it wasn’t like that, we wouldn’t be constantly learning and adapting.

What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you while in the SEO field? Do you still get a rush of excitement when a new project takes off?

Getting a site into a top 5 for [mesothelioma] on Google. Kidding. One of the more appealing qualities of the SEO field is the puzzle cracking. You are constantly presented with puzzles – why did Google penalize this site, why is this site ranking above me, what are the parameters considered in the new update… For me, cracking those puzzles is the most exciting part of my work. I really have to remind myself sometimes that I should be thinking about potential profitability of these conundrums because to me a puzzle is there to be solved and that is all that matters. Once I crack it, I kinda lose interest in it so I have to make sure that 1) solving the current SEO puzzle is worth my time in terms of profitability and 2) I can get action items from possible solutions. I think the best example of these puzzles is Google overoptimization filter. I kinda developed a knack of getting sites out of it (which landed me my current job as well). Another exciting thing would be implementing extensive structural changes to large sites and seeing the positive effect in SERPs. As for new projects, I have seen so many of them die off miserably that I find it hard to get excited at the beginning. First jolts of traffic and first rankings get me excited and then I turn the engines on.

How would you compare biology to SEO?

Oh dear, this could be a whole blog post. There are several aspects that are very similar. Mainly, and this is especially true in molecular biology, we are making changes on a system that is a black box. We have a whole bunch of (presumed) parameters to tinker with and very limited list of observable outputs. So we make deductions which can, but don’t have to, be true. So if I am changing a certain ingredient in my bacterial culture and observe a change in growth rate, I cannot be sure what exactly the base cause of the increase was. Maybe the element I have added is actually poison and my bacteria are trying to multiply on reserves of food, hoping that one mutant will be able to overcome the adverse effects of the element I have added. Similarly, when we add a link pointing to a website, we don’t know whether it was that link that caused an increase in ranking or someone in Bangladesh created a valuable link that is pointing to one of the pages that is linking to our new linking page and we enjoyed some of that juice.

Another important similarity (and then I will shut up about it) is the arms race between the search engines and SEOs and SEOs among themselves. Evolutionary theory and ecological sciences are full of very important lessons that can be applied to the world of SEO. I have written on my blog in the past how some evolutionary theories can be applied to understand and foresee the relationship between Google and link buying. Another metaphor from the evolutionary theory I like to use is the Red Queen Principle – in evolution, competing organisms have to invest all their efforts in improving and adapting so they can remain at the same competitive point relatively to their enemies. Like with the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, they have to run their fastest to remain in the same place. The same can be said about websites competing in lucrative niches – it is not enough to get to the first spot. Your competitors are constantly aiming for that place too and you have to put in maximal efforts (linking, site speed, trimming indexing fat, QDF hunting etc.) to remain in the same place.

You are a big proponent of applying the scientific method to SEO. What parts of tests are easy to do? What parts are hard?

SEO tests can be easy from the beginning till the end if done right. The hard part is asking the question in a “testable” way. You have to keep in mind the limits of your testing system and constantly be aware about what you can measure and what you can’t. You have to make sure you have taken into the account all the possible outcomes of your test and what each of those outcomes is telling you. Otherwise you can find yourself spending valuable time, just to end up with a highly ambivalent result that is not teaching you anything about the issue you are researching. Deciding what controlling factors you are going to implement and doing it in a way that doesn’t interfere with your test can also be challenging.

What do public SEO "studies" often get wrong?

Mostly, people get the order of steps that make up the test wrong. They usually start with a pre-made conclusion and then build the test (and, I suspect, not rarely the results themselves) around it. They want to show that, for example, text surrounding the link will pass the relevancy to the target page, so they go out to prove that. That is the exact opposite of the scientific process. Now many people say that trying to approach SEO questions with a scientific process is an overkill, but science is more a state of mind then a set of tools. It exists so that minimal bias enters your decision and conclusion process, therefore people should not approach it as something that involves a lab coat and chemicals, but rather change their mindset from “what do I want the results to be” to “what the reality is”.

What percent of well-known fundamental "truths" in SEO would you describe as being wrong?

I would say that 100% of absolute, definitive statements about SEO are false. Recently, Joe Hall has written about becoming a “postmodern SEO” when realizing that every conventional truth in SEO can be 100% right and 100% wrong, depending on the context. I very much identify with this sentiment. It very much rubs me the wrong way when people in the industry come out against a certain SEO technique (and it rubs me even more when I know they were the biggest abusers of it until yesterday) or when they make a strategy X an “absolute prerogative and whoever doesn’t do X should be fired by their clients and sued for dishonest practices”. Keyword tags can be useful in some cases, rank reporting can be useful in some cases, forum signature spamming can be useful in some cases and increasing keyword density can be useful in some cases. It all depends on the context.

In the forums sometimes when I read your contributions & think "classic whitehat consultant view" and then on other entries I think "aggressive affiliate in gaming." What allowed you to develop such a diverse range?

I am very flattered that people think this when they read my ramblings or talk to me about SEO. What allowed me to develop a diverse range of experiences in SEO is not being judgemental towards SEO techniques. Continuing from the previous question, understanding that they are all tools that should be put in the right context and used responsibly, enabled me to try and see all the advantages and disadvantages of all SEO techniques and apply them accordingly. Had I taken “holier than thou” approach towards any end of the SEO spectrum, I would have been a worse SEO. I also consider myself lucky to have had an opportunity to work in a wide range of niches - from legal, ecommerce, travel and financial, all the way to porn, pharmaceutical and gaming with a lot of niches and business sizes in between those extremes. Once you look at link profiles of sites that have been ranking for years in some of those extreme industries, you understand how preposterous divisions to hats of different colours really are.

As a second part to that question, how do you decide what techniques are good for some of your own websites & which are good for client websites?

Again, it is all in the context. I make a big differentiation between our sites and clients’ sites in a way that whenever I want to use a riskier SEO technique on a client site, I make sure to educate the client to all the risks and benefits of going down that road. I make sure the client understands the possible repercussions and I try to offer a cleaner alternative. There are clients that are not interested at all in organic promotion and there are clients that enter the project knowing that the site we work on can be burnt in a matter of minutes. When it comes to our sites, it depends on the profitability of the site, obviously. Then there are sites I test stuff on that I wouldn’t click on without wearing my lab gloves.

Do you believe Google is intentionally tilting the search game toward brands, or do you think there are many other signals they are looking for that brands just happen to frequently score high on?

I don’t think we need to speculate about that much – they have openly said in the past that the brands are the solution to the cesspool of the internet. They are rewarding brands with SERP enhancements. They are creating algorithmic changes in which brands are apparently being treated less harshly than run-of-the-mill sites. On the other hand they are making sure to stress in their PR announcements that brands are not treated differently than anyone else. As I don’t believe they openly lie about these things, it seems to me they are just doing doublespeak and being intentionally obscure about it. I can say that I don’t discriminate against tall people on busses and I will be factually correct since no one goes over the bus line and takes out people over 180 cm tall and sends them back home. However, by making the legspace very uncomfortable for these people, I may as well kick them out of line and save everyone the trouble. So while there is probably no checkbox next to certain websites marking them as brands, the ranking algorithms can theoretically be tweaked so that the brands surface to the top of a lot of the money queries and I think that is what we are seeing here. Possible signals for this can be percentage of links with URL for anchor, certain number of searches for the brand name and others. By the way, reliance on these signals can be used to explain the relative advantage that exact match domains have for their keyword.

Both the relevancy algorithms & webmasters are in some ways reactive. I believe that frequently causes the relevancy algorithms to ebb and flow toward & away from different types of sites. Do you generally have 1 sorta go-to-market plan at any given time, or do you suggest creating multiple SEO driven strategies in parallel?

It all depends on the client responsiveness levels. If I see that the client is willing and allows us to become part of their marketing team, then we both aim for harnessing every marketing activity for SEO benefits, while also trying to diversify and reduce the dependency on any single traffic source. In cases when, for a whole lot of different reasons, we cannot establish a network of sites that will use different strategies, we try to work with a whole lot of subdomains, trusting how Google treated subdomains historically. I have to admit that in the majority of cases, the responsiveness of the deciding ranks (or the lack of thereof), together with a constantly growing list of more basic, day-to-day tasks, prevents us from making these strategic marketing decisions for the client – it is hard to talk about holistic approach to marketing when their homepage doesn’t appear on first 3 pages of the site: query or when their IT department decides to 302 every product page to homepage while they are moving servers for 3 months.

When major algorithm changes happen they destroy certain business models & eventually create other ones. How many steps ahead / how far ahead do you feel you generally are from where the algorithm is at any given time?

We are all over the board with this. Luckily (or unluckily) none of our clients were affected by Panda. I say “unluckily” because the scientist in me would want nothing more than to test different theories about Panda on an affected site. The marketer in me is stabbing the scientist in the back with a long sword for having such blasphemous thoughts. I would say that we usually “hang around” where the algorithm is at any given moment and if we stay behind, we manage to close the gap in a reasonable period of time. At least that has been the case so far. In some other cases, we have benefited from sites getting hit by algorithmic changes. This only means we are lucky, because I don’t think there is any single strategy that is 100% working all of the time in every level of niche competitiveness. Had such strategy existed, someone would have cracked it (Dave Naylor most probably), used it to their own benefit and Google would have changed the rules again, rendering the “perfect strategy” less than perfect.

How far behind that point would you put a.) the general broader SEO industry b.) SEO advice in the mainstream media?

One of the major revelations I discovered in SEOBook forum is that the public SEO community is really just a small tip of the iceberg that is this industry. There are so many skilled people working on their own sites, being affiliates or working in-house professionals that do not participate in the SEO Agora that any attempt to characterize “the general broader SEO industry” would be wrong. There is no way of judging where the industry is, other than by what they write about and talk about in social media and I don’t think that is a fair judgement. This is the industry of marketers and people do not write to dispense knowledge most of the time. Vast majority of the content put out there is created with the purpose of self-promotion and/or following some invented rule that “you must write X posts per week to keep your audience engaged”. It is very similar to the whole “Top X” lists format in which it is obvious that a significant percentage of items on the numbered list were forced in there so that the number X would be round or fit some theory of “most read top X articles”. While I do believe that someone will find value in anything, when looking across the board, there is very little you can tell about the actual knowledge of the people in this industry from what they write. I hope. I will tell you that I do see a general difference between the European and the US SEO crowd – I have seen (percentagewise) a seemingly larger amount of UK, Dutch and German SEOs that are more daring and questioning in their writing than the US SEOs. Don’t ask me why this is so, that is beyond my scope of expertise (or interest).

As for the mainstream media, living in the Middle East, I have learned to automatically distrust the mainstream media on issues much more important than SEO, therefore I usually treat mainstream SEO articles as a comic relief. Or a tragic one.

Many times when the media covers SEO they do it from the "lone ranger black hat lawbreaker" angle to drum up pageviews. Do you ever see that ending?

Nope. Nor do I ever see people in our industry not taking the bait and responding to that kind of coverage, thus contributing significantly to the mentioned drumming up of traffic. Even if the advertising industry moves away from impression-based pricing, more attention will always mean more links and that is just a different kind of opiate.

From a scientific standpoint, do you ever feel that pushing average to below-average quality sites is bad because it is information pollution (not saying that you particularly do it or do it often...but just in general), or do you view Google as being somewhat adversarial in their approach to search & thus deserving of anything they get from publishers?

I consider as below average anything Google would not allow Adsense on. Maybe someone really doesn’t know how to drink water from a glass and for that person eHow article is the best fit. On a serious note, just like with hats, I try not to be judgmental when it comes to content. If lower quality content that does not rank anywhere is used to push high quality content in very popular SERPs, I think it all levels out at the end. The bigger problem for me is rehashed, bland content, which you can see that was written according to a mold: Start with a question, present some existing views on the issue and end with asking your readers the initial question so you encourage comments. Or numbered list articles. Or using totally unrelated current events AND numbered lists in combination with a tech topic. I have just seen an article titled “5 things Amy Winehouse’s death teaches us about small business”. Spamming forums is Pulitzer worthy material compared to this garbage. Yet Google constantly ranks this crap and rewards it with a cut from their advertising revenue. And what is even worse, the crap ranks for head terms (ok maybe a bit less after Panda) while forum or comment spam does not appear in my SERPs. So who is polluting the web again?

I don’t think a scientific approach is relevant here. One thing that exists in the world of science and doesn’t in SEO is peer review. So if something gets published in a scientific journal, it was reviewed critically by the experts in that field and was deemed worthy in every possible aspect by some rigorous standards. Had this kind of system existed in the world of SEO, we wouldn’t have a below-average-quality content problem.

Can Bing or anyone else (outside of say Naver, Yandex & Baidu) challenge Google & win a significant slice of the search marketshare?

Only if Google does it for them and drops the ball completely. I don’t believe in homicide in the world of hi-tech companies (Facebook killer, Google killer, iPad killer) but I definitely believe in suicide (Myspace). The ball is constantly in Google’s court since they are the biggest kid on the playground and they have managed it fine so far. It is ironic how they have to deal with bad press on so many issues, almost making MS the underdog and a company people turn to when they want to boycott Google. Right now Google is the innovator and a trend setter in many fields beside the search (Documents, Analytics, G+, Adwords) so having all those eyeballs and improving integration of all those products into search and vice versa will make them an impossible act to follow in any foreseeable future. Which is something that was said about ancient Rome too.

A lot of SEOs are driven by gut feeling. With your focus on the scientific method, how much do you have to test something before you are confident in it? How often does your strategy revolve around gut feeling?

There are things that I know that work without everyday testing. Keywords in anchor will pass relevancy in the majority of cases and I don’t need to test that every time that I place a link somewhere. I am also aware of the exceptions to that rule (second link doesn’t count, for example) so when I see unusual or unexpected response from search engine, it gets my attention and I start testing. I also like to test extraordinary claims by people in the SEO industry, because they usually go against common knowledge and that is always informative. I will usually not let the testing process stand in the way of work. If there are several possible outcomes to the test that takes a long time to perform, I try to run with the project for as long as I can without making the decision, leaving all future direction possibilities open.

Gut feeling is something I usually use to assess trustworthiness of the people I listen to. I rely a lot (maybe more than I should) on other people’s knowledge. As I mentioned, I haven’t had the chance to test how pandalized site responds to different changes so I had to trust other people’s reports. Gut feeling is very helpful here to save time reading mile-long posts of people that I suspect do not even practice SEO on daily basis.

If a friend of yours said they wanted to get into SEO, what would you tell them to do in order to get up to speed?

To read the free guides from Google and SEOMoz. To pick a niche and create a site from scratch. To learn how to code, how to delegate, how to measure and how to hire and fire people. To read at least one SEO article every day. To read no more than one SEO article every day. To invest their first profits into SEOBook Training Section and to submit their site for review in the forum. The value they get from the advice there is going to be the best investment they made at the early stage. After their site is making money, to repeat that process in a different niche with a different strategy. Diversification is the best insurance policy in the ever changing algorithm world

If you had to start from scratch today with no money but your knowledge would you still be able to compete in 2011?

Yeah. Competing is about picking the battles you can win with what you have at the moment. There are still niches that can be monetized with relatively low effort (especially in non-english markets) and I think I would be able to monetize the knowledge I have and leverage it to create revenue in a reasonable amount of time. Luckily, I don’t have to test that claim.

If you had $50,000 to start, but lacked your current knowledge, what do you think your chances of success in SEO are?

Very low. Part of the knowledge is knowing what to spend the money on. Without prior knowledge, I would probably think that I can take on this SEO thing all by myself and $50K would be gone before I realized my mistakes. I would probably fall into the trap of buying links from some link network or torching my new site with 200,000 forum signature links all created in 2 hours

And, saving a tough one for last, in what areas of SEO (if any) do you feel science falls flat on its face?

First, I would like to reiterate: science is not a tool, it is a way of thinking and approaching problems. So under those definitions, I don’t think that science can fall flat on the face at all. I do see a problem with the abuse of the word “science” for marketing goals and a lot of those “approaches” fail because they lack the scientific way of thinking. Mostly they lack self-criticism and are so blinded by tagging their work as “science” that they will not adopt some of the humility and self doubt that is present in the majority of scientific work. The lust for hitting that Publish button, especially if there is potential financial benefit in publishing a certain kind of results, is the most unscientific drive in our industry.

There are some areas of SEO that scientific thinking should take a back seat to other approaches. One that instantly springs to mind is link building. To me, link building is the true art of marketing – recognizing what drives the potential linkers, leading them to linking to you while all along they are thinking that they came up with that decision themselves. There are some measurements involved and any testing should be planned and executed with a scientific rigour, but the creative part of it is something where science is of little use.

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Thanks Branko! You can find him rambling at @neyne on Twitter or the SEOBook Forum & publishing findings and experiments at http://www.seo-scientist.com.

Currently, he is responsible for SEO R&D at Whiteweb, agency that provides SEO services to a small number of large clients in highly profitable niches. His responsibilities at Whiteweb are to gather, organize and expand the company's knowhow through research, experimentation and cooperation with other SEO professionals. In addition to being an SEO, he is currently writing his MSc thesis in environmental microbiology at HebrewU in Jerusalem.

Published: July 28, 2011

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Comments

July 29, 2011 - 1:11am

Great interview, Branko!

Now here is an additional question:
Who would you rather hire for a random SEO campaign,
A person with limited "technical SEO knowledge" who is an excellent marketer, or someone that has limited marketing skills but can get any coding validated?

V

July 29, 2011 - 1:43pm

Hey Branko, I agree with pretty much everything you said there. The scientific mindset should be more prevalent in SEO. One thing though we do need to realise: science usually deals with fixed targets - i.e. the laws of nature don't change overnight.

SEO however deals with a moving target. Google's algos can and do change overnight, so a valid test on Monday could be entirely obsolete on Friday. But it'll still linger on in the blogosphere for years.

July 31, 2011 - 10:25pm

One of the things I feel marketers and businesses get wrong is that they are too dogamtic about their ideas. It insults the intelligence of fellow marketers, and especially consumers. We need more honesty, and more people talking like this.

It's good to see the 'seo scientist' talk about the downfalls of the scientific method in SEO. It's also nice to finally hear someone acknowledge that all there are no rules that apply 100% of the time.

Puno hvala Branko

August 1, 2011 - 1:34am

...that good marketing requires honesty. Unfortunately I don't believe it anymore. Too many times I have seen something great sold or given away cheaply only to get bitching and moaning out of it, and then later a huckster takes an inferior version of the exact same concept to market and calls it "revolutionary" & people who were too ignorant to be aware of options in the marketplace eat it up.

We live in a world where substance is nowhere near as valuable as hype and polish are. And as we delve deeper into the headline-driven society (where ditto heads on social media syndicate bogus headlines) that will only become more the case.

Substance & honestly may allegedly be appreciated, but they are not really as profitable as alternate means. And I write that as a person who has deluded himself into believing the opposite for nearly a decade before accepting reality for what it is. Human nature isn't easy to change.

August 1, 2011 - 4:32pm

Well, I guess that saying marketing 'requires' honesty or even dishonesty is dogmatic... and as Branko said, many approaches are only right *sometimes*. Probably one of the reasons this blog is special is because it takes an honest stance on issues most marketers ignore. In a sea of dishonesty, honesty can be a differentiating factor.

Then again, I agree that in the majority of cases marketers only paint the picture they want you to see. This approach goes 'unpunished' by the market, and are thus profitable. Like you said, human nature isn't easy to change.

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