Mike Grehan Interview

Many thanks for talking with us today, Mike. We've spent a few messy evenings drinking girly Merlots, but for those who don't know you, can you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

Ahhhh… those halcyon Merlot fuelled days… I remember them well… (truth be known, with all that Merlot, I don't remember much at all!).

So for those folks who are new to the industry, I can give a little background.

I first invented the Internet back in the 1960s. I had a young whippersnapper working for me as my assistant at the time. Al Gore was his name. I believe he grew up and took some sort of job with the government. Not sure where he is now.

In about 1965 I coined the term “hypertext,” which I was thrilled about. It didn't actually mean anything, but it sounded really cool. I used to drink with a guy called Ted Nelson who thought this was a pretty cool word, too. Ted's an old scientist living here in New York. And we do laugh when we get together about all of those people who have assumed that it was him who coined the term. Boy, must we have been drunk that night.

After messing around in physics (it being the new rock and roll, of course) I moved to Geneva, Switzerland and took a job at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was a pretty dull job actually – same thing day-in, day-out. Atomic nuclei can get pretty boring to interact with. Plus I didn't like the special suit.

On one occasion, I was working with a complete dunderhead by the name of Tim Berners Lee. He was one of those guys that you just knew was never going to amount to anything in life. I explained to him that, during my morning shower, I had this brilliant idea to apply hypertext to the internet. He was so excited.. Mike, he said, I think you've just invented the… interweb!

Stupid boy!

Anyway, after being knighted by Her Majesty the Queen for my sterling work inventing what we now know as the “World Wide Web,” I thought I'd better do something practical with it. By now there was a lot of stuff out there and it was getting difficult to find anything. I was a visiting lecturer at Stanford University at the time and hooked up with a couple of kids called Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

This was not a good experience for me. These guys came to my dorm one night and stole a paper I had written called, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” I even had a pet name for it. I called it “Google.” I thought that was quite cool and trendy, what with Google being a play on the word goggle, which means to ogle women. Some time later, I read some bullshit from these guys who stole my idea that it had something to do with "googol," which is the Californian pronunciation for a word which also means to ogle women… er… I think.

I'm in the process of suing these Google jokers for almost 600 bucks to cover the amount of time it took me to write the paper. I'm not stupid… I'll get every penny of it, I bet!

Eventually, I moved away from search, mainly because it doesn't work properly and never will. So, I invented my latest toy, which I call Twitter. I called it Twitter because it's full of twits talking bits of shit to each other. Shitter.com had already gone by then, unfortunately.

Oh! Fancy me forgetting to mention Wikipedia! I actually invented that as a joke and people started taking it seriously. What fun!! People are failing exams because it's full of false crap. Some people have been seriously injured for the rest of their lives for taking some of the medical advice… ROFL

I'm on the verge of leaving the internet space to work on my new invention, which is very much a green thing. Imagine this: Reusable toilet paper! Heh! How cool is that. Some people have called it a flannel. In fact, some have called it a face cloth. Dood, I wouldn't want that near my face knowing where it had been before. Eeeuuwww!

Anyway… these are just some of the excellent things I've done in my extremely interesting life. What other brilliant things do you need to know about me? Being as modest as I am, I may not be able to answer all of your questions of course…

Every word Mike says is true :)

In your paper "New Signals To Search Engines", you frame search in a historical context - where it has been, where it is now, and where it might be going. What are the major changes coming up that will have the most impact on current SEO practices and goals?

Grehan now puts serious head on…

I've talked about how search engine optimization evolved in the first instance. It was driven by the limitations of the technology used by search engines. Basically, the World Wide Web was developed to do one thing – but everyone wants it to do another. So, crawling the web using the HTTP protocol was the obvious route to go for search engines back then.

But if Google is saying they now have seen a trillion URLs and have no certainty that they'll ever be able to crawl them in a timely fashion, maybe we've reached the zenith of the crawl. Not only that, the end user is expecting a much richer experience. So if the main job of SEO was to optimize static web pages and make them available to crawlers, it's all becoming a little passé now.

Have we seen the end of HTML and the crawler? Absolutely not. But the level of requirement for SEO work is going to diminish, rather like that of the blacksmith when motorized transport was introduced. Do we still have blacksmiths today? For sure, but they're not as required as they used to be.

The main changes will be in existing SEO shops either moving into other technical/development work or retraining in other online marketing disciplines. It's a very exciting time in search. Most marketers can see that. But those people from a purely technical background and used to just doing geeky code for a crawler don't see it that way.

You mention that user trails - as provided by the toolbar, tagging etc - will become some of the strongest signals. That's pretty much the death knell of traditional SEO, isn't it?

If we take what I said in the answer to the last question, you can see that traditional SEO as we know it has had to evolve anyway. I don't really think of link building as SEO, to be honest. For me, link building is the by-product of good marketing. Whereas fixing pages for a crawler is purely a technical process.

What needs to be taken into account most importantly is not where SEO goes to next, or whether it survives at all. It's about where search goes to next and how the end user evolves with those changes. Making pages for crawlers and getting links for the sole purpose of getting links omits one thing from the equation: the end user experience.

So, now that search engines can follow end users they can see where they started and where they dropped off. That kind of data is so important. It's the wisdom of crowds. It's the people's vote. So how does a marketer get involved there? It's going to be a little clichéd, but create an experience - not a web page.

Last year, Eric Schmidt CEO of Google, said an interesting thing in an interview. He mentioned - and I'm paraphrasing here - "that the Internet is a "cesspool" where false information thrives, and that "brands are the way to rise above the cesspool". Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?

I read that interview too.

He was stating the obvious to be honest. People have long bemoaned the fact that smaller businesses don't get the same shelf space in search as the big brands (the same applies offline, of course). Brand building is all about good marketing. It's all about building trust and reputation. But wait for this… It's not just about the big boys. A local store can build up as much trust and reputation within its community as well as a high street chain.

Social networking sites are all about people building up trust and reputation on a personal level. So, I think the notion of brands as we've known them – such as multi-nationals like Exxon – is going away. I think we're moving more into social search and that's all about tapping into a network of trust.

Addressing your question directly: "Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?" As long as those brands belong to the end user and not large corporations, and that's certainly what's happening, then yes, a great signal of quality.

Social media, for want of a better term, is a "place" where most content is being generated, and increasingly where many people are spending their time. What are your thoughts on, say, Twitter? What are the implications for Google and other big search engines when people rely on real-time wisdom-of-crowds, and communities, for answers?

So we've already touched on this a little when talking about tapping into a network of trust. Absolutely this is a very important move. The results you get at search engines are hardly verified results and they can be manipulated. That means you have what a mathematical formula (the algorithm) believes are the best ranked documents. And then you have a little re-ranking going on when Ralph Tegtmeir gets to them!

However, if you tap into a network of trust, such as a parenting group, and ask them a about a child's allergy, the information is likely to be much more verified. If 500 parents all agree that a certain method works then that's more trustworthy information than a search engine algorithm can provide.

But there's a whole lot more to it than me Tweeting my followers and asking which is the best Irish pub in New York and wanting an answer now!

Can we talk a little about formats. You make the point that HTML may have served us well up to now, but things are changing. The web is becoming media rich. What does this mean for SEO? Do search marketers become multi-media positioners?

I saw a quote from a senior scientist at Google where he said we’re moving "away from a web of content to a web of applications." So it's more about the end user experience and the method of delivery, as opposed to one protocol over another. I don't think HTTP/HTML is going away anytime soon. But it's not going to be the primary method for internet search going forward.

People are already talking about new platforms. One idea is Flash. I like that. Or maybe pure java. Most certainly social search into networks of trust and live search via apps such as Twitter will further develop in the future.

We spend a lot of time on SEOBook connecting-the-dots between areas such as seo, brand and traditional marketing. You've said "connected marketing" is the future of marketing. Can you talk a little about this? This is the point where big worlds collide, isn't it?

Connected marketing is a kind of generic term for the new audience of always-on, 24-hour-a-day networks. I use the iPhone as a primary example of how to connect with your audience in so many different ways. Sure, it could be the HTTP/HTML route as it comes with a browser. But there are also so many apps you can download. You can get to your audience via email, txt, Twitter. You'll be surprised at this… you can even use it as a telephone!

It is about big worlds colliding. It's not just that technology has changed so we market via different channels to the same people. It's more about how the audience has changed. And so we have to change the way we connect with them.

I don't think that conventional methods such as the 30-second spot are going away anytime soon. But we need to examine all areas of this new marketing mix and get our messaging aligned.

If traditional SEO is at a point of diminishing value, what are the things an SEO can do to adapt to this brave new world?

First of all, stop using just SEO. The job we've been doing to help search engines do a job they should have been doing themselves is not as critical as it was. Crawlers are getting smarter and the communication between search engines and SEOs is much more transparent now. Search engines provide many tools to make the process of letting them know that you have good indexable content available.

But as the end user demands a much richer experience, search engines need to know a lot more about other types of content. Not just the textual HTML pages that SEOs labor over.

It is a brave new world of marketing. It's tremendously exciting. But you do have to start and think more about smart marketing and less about smart HTML coding.

There's a plethora of books and information on social media, optimizing video and perhaps, more importantly, analytics which open up this whole new world of marketing. As the value of providing pure SEO services diminishes, the value of new services increases. This is not a bad time for search marketing: It's the best it has ever been!

Many thanks, Mike.

Mike Grehan is Global KDM Officer with Acronym Media, a leading search marketing company based in New York's landmark Empire State Building. Follow Mike on Twitter here.

Published: March 30, 2009 by A Reader in interviews


March 30, 2009 - 10:04pm

Good stuff, Peter, and thanks for the insights Mike.

As an "agency guy" it's good to know that my org is not the only one out there that that is approaching SEO (and marketing in general) in this manner.

March 31, 2009 - 4:09am

It would seem we are finally staring at the elephant in the living room: quality content is vital to the success of a website. It keeps people on your site, and keeps them returning, and recommending your site.

However, it would seem Google still values links no less than it has done over the last 10 years (easily provable through link building), so maybe the best overall approach for success is to link build prudently while creating fantastic content on your site.

It's funny that Schmidt mentioned how the internet is a cesspool - the link popularity method of ranking sites has certainly contributed to this cesspool, and Google don't seem to have any qualms about ranking zero-quality sites high up in their listings. If user experience was the strongest signal for ranking sites (and I hope it does become so), you'd soon see people clean up their acts. At the moment, low quality content sites can get high rankings because they have high quality links. That's surely not good for searchers is it?

One thing I wish Google would do is manually clean up their listings - de-ranking sites that are clearly just "drop domain" / MFA (hmm), and introducing a widely publicised move towards quality. Why not have an army of website reviewers who can give sites a "quality rank"? If they see brands as a sign of quality, then surely marking websites that have clearly got good quality content is a good way to introduce new, trusted sites (it's normally very easy to tell when a site has had a lot of time spent on honing its content).

The usual excuse of potential abuse/too much effort isn't good enough - there's already too much abuse with low quality sites with high quality links getting good rankings.

March 31, 2009 - 5:35pm

I saw one religious site that was turned into an MFA arbitrage/garbitrage AdSense site covering payday loans, etc. ... they have been doing it for years and might be pulling in 5 figures a day from it :)

March 31, 2009 - 8:32pm

Now, how did they pull that off? Did just mixing in some low-quality / average links with the right anchor text help them rank for loans?! I would have assumed that field is too competitive to get a ranking that way (unless the religious site was the online version of the bible or something?!).

April 1, 2009 - 3:22am

If you have strong domain authority it does not take a lot to rank for long tail search queries, particularly if you create pages focused on just them.

March 31, 2009 - 9:03am

I assume this is not the Mike Grehan from the UK? or is he? I'm a little bit confused, now! lol

EDIT: ah yes he is/you are! ;)

April 1, 2009 - 3:42am

Ah that doesn't surprise me Aaron. Here's how a lot of money is made online:-

1. Buy a domain with high page rank that has just expired.
2. Invest 5 minutes of your time stealing articles (based on the theme of the domain name) from other sites and paste them into your newly-bought domain. Mix the info around a bit to make it look more unique. It doesn't have to make a great deal of sense.
3. Link exchange, using the high page rank as leverage to get high page rank links to the site
4. Watch your rankings increase despite the non-sensical information on your site because you have high quality links pointing to your site, so you're legitimate, ok?
5. Make money from ads and also selling links on your site.
6. Laugh and shake your head when the CEO of Google says the internet is a cesspool (laugh even harder when Google rewards you with 4 or 5 figure Google Adsense payments each month).

And so it goes.

June 22, 2009 - 2:01pm

Hey Aaron, good interview. Sounds, though, like you feel completely different than you did when you slammed Ken Evoy (for saying the same thing years ago) at http://www.seobook.com/archives/001244.shtml

His book, "The Tao of SBI! and Why SEO is Dead" pretty much predicted your interview with Mike would happen. I remember that slam because I was surprised at how rough you were without going into any detailed analysis of what he had written. I like you both.

Ken, though, seems to have a better grasp at getting the FUTURE big picture right.


June 22, 2009 - 9:55pm

Not really Doug. Ken still thinks hyphenated domains are better than their un-hyphenated versions, which shows that he doesn't have a grasp on the present (or the past couple years).

Ken wasn't predicting anything other than he was a good salesman who hawked a sales piece where it was unwelcome to try to get a bit of buzz going. To this day most of his stuff is wrapped around selling you into his system. He is a salesman. It is what he does.

I don't have a CMS, a hosting service, etc. that I push...so I can be more committed to being an honest customer advocate vs a constant salesman. I will tell you to use superior open source software programs like Drupal and Wordpress...he will tell you everything you need is inside SBI.

Not only does he give bad advice on domain names, but given how ugly / aesthetically unpleasing most Site Build It sites look, it seems that he might be leading a few people astray.

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