Ten Questions with: Danny Sullivan

 

Last one for the year, and who better than someone who needs no introduction. Apart from “that man….”.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Danny. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What is your background?

I originally worked in newspapers, first as a researcher with the LA Times, then as a graphics reporter for the Orange County Register, back in the early 90s. After seeing the web for the first time in late 1994, I knew that it was something I wanted to be part of. Newspapers were slow to embrace the web, so I jumped ship into private web development through a friend’s company, in early 1995.

We didn’t just build web sites. We also promoted them through search engine submission, link building and other Internet publicity efforts. One day, a client wondered why his web site wasn’t top ranked for a particular phrase. We didn’t really have any good answers, nor were there many to be found on the web. So, I started researching how search engines operated. I published everything I’d discovered through something I called, “A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines,” in early 1996. Along with optimization tips, I also published information about which search engines I thought were important.

The tips attracted a lot of attention. When my friend decided to close the web development side of his company to focus on software development, I decided to keep maintaining and expanding my information. In mid-1997, I moved everything over into a new domain name and site, which I thought would help people locate the information more easily. That was how SearchEngineWatch.com was born.

By the end of 1997, the then Mecklermedia (now Jupitermedia) purchased the site from me. It was a great arrangement, because it allowed me to focus exclusively on the editorial side of things, while they handled advertising as well as technical operations.

Finally, to answer a question that comes up all the time. No, I’m not British. I’m from Orange County, California and lived there until 1997. I now live in England, near the city of Salisbury. My wife is British, and we moved over here to be closer to her family. That’s why you often see both California and UK references in my writing. Despite my immersion in the UK, I remain a proud Californian!

You were onto the power of search engine marketing pretty early on. What made you decide to follow that path as opposed to say, web design, or banner ads or some other trend that was happening at the time?

Well, as mentioned, I had started up with web development originally. However, even then, we knew it wasn’t enough to simply build a web site. You also had to ensure people could find it. Search engine marketing was one of several forms of publicity we undertook. I ended up focusing on search engines exclusively because it was clear to me that these were not creatures that would disappear. Everyone used them because they were effective tools at locating information, and in my opinion, they were going to continue to be a primary traffic channel over the long term.

In fact, I remember doing a freelance piece for a major computer magazine about search engines in early 1996. At the time, I told them that the topic of search engines was huge, and that it wasn’t effectively covered by doing a once-a-year round up. Nevertheless, that continued to be the trend, for the print world. Fortunately, the web allowed me to pursue the idea that there could be continuing coverage about search engines.

Are you doing SEO these days? What sort of work does your consulting firm, Calafia, undertake?

I always have a private chuckle when someone asks about my “firm,” which sounds so large, because it’s really just me with some assistance from my wife. I do a limited amount of consulting work these days, either phone consultations with those who want one-on-one advice or a second opinion to what they may be hearing from SEO firms they are considering or from internal technical or marketing people. I also do legal consulting on search engine-related issues. I’ve kept things purposely small, so that SEO firms and search engines I work for stories with don’t feel I’m pursuing research for my own benefit. So, the vast majority of my time is spent being editor of Search Engine Watch.

While online marketing trends come and go, search engine marketing appears to have been a constant. Where do you see SEO heading in the future? Does it have a future?

Absolutely, search engine marketing has a future. At a conference earlier this year, I likened search engines to being a “reverse broadcast network.” People pay tons to be on television because you can get your message out in front of millions of people: broadcasting. With search engines, millions of people are telling you *their* messages: what they want to buy, purchase or get information about. You don’t broadcast to them; instead, it’s the reverse, they broadcast to you. There’s very little if anything as a marketing or information medium that I can think of that compares to this. It’s golden and still today amazingly unrecognized. Given that search engines are so unique, I can’t see the area of marketing on them going away.

Where will it go? More paid, certainly. That’s one reason I’ve tried to stress “search engine marketing” as a term that encompasses several forms of search engine promotion. Certainly we’ll continue to see traditional “search engine optimization,” the practice of influencing crawler-based editorial results, continue to be effective. However, it’s not the only way of being found on a search engine. Also, while editorial results will continue to be shown, I think you’ll see their prominence be more eroded over time.

A good example of this is how Yahoo recently added a fourth Overture listing to the “Sponsor Matches” section at the top of its search results page. This pushes the editorial listings down further. You can still show up in the editorial results for free, of course, thanks to the use of Google data. However, running a paid listing that puts you “above the fold” might be worth it to some people for the additional traffic it brings. It’s certainly something to consider.

Overall, I think anyone involved with search engine marketing needs to firmly understand there’s both “PR-style” efforts they can undertake as well as “advertising” efforts. Search Engine PR is about influencing those editorial results. It offers no guarantees, but it can still be an effective way to get “natural” or “organic” traffic and will continue to be one. However, search engine advertising also exists and can be complementary to those PR efforts. I think the most successful people with search engine marketing will be those who undertake both PR and advertising efforts — or if they specialize in only one, they will ensure they partner with someone who does the other.

We asked this question of Ralph Tegtmeier and Brett Tabke, and we’d like to get your take on it: The SEO world exists in a strange place where the relationship between the search engine and the SEO is not clearly defined. How do you think the search engines feel about those who practice SEO and do you ever see a point in time where both sides will see eye to eye?

Arguably, things are better than they’ve ever been before. Many SEOs simply could not have personal relationships with search engines prior to about 1999. However, since then, a number of changes have greatly opened the dialog. There have been conferences, both ones I’ve produced and those by others, which have connected SEOs to search engines. The online forums, especially WebmasterWorld.com, have allowed both sides to reach out to each other.

Probably the greatest factor, however, has been the growth of “paid participation programs,” an overriding name I use to lump together paid listings, paid inclusion and paid submission programs. Why “paid participation?” Because these programs have allowed SEOs to
*participate* in the listing process in some way, and in a formal manner. Go back to 1998, and the only search engine then willing to give you a formal, guaranteed role was the then GoTo, today’s Overture. Now, everyone’s got some type of program.

Indeed, for the crawlers that operate paid inclusion programs, SEOs are their bread and butter. While they don’t want to give a free ride to spam — or at least say they don’t want to do this — it certainly is true that SEOs in paid inclusion programs are going to get more feedback and second chances if they’ve done something wrong. In fact, they’re probably going to get more leeway about what “wrong” is defined as, if they are paying to have content included.

Because of this, I think the real adversarial role that some want to see isn’t between search engines as a whole and SEOs but between Google and SEOs. Google has no paid inclusion program, so when it comes to its all-important editorial results, SEOs (and web site owners in general) have no guaranteed way to open a dialog with the search engine. That can lead to frustration and perhaps a sense that Google hates SEOs.

I wouldn’t go this far. Google, in my view, has long reached out to the SEO community. If they really hated SEOs, you wouldn’t see them doing interviews with me, with others, attending conferences or taking part in forums.

That’s not to say that Google loves SEO activities, of course. At Google, and I think with the technical side of any search engine, there can be an uncomfortableness with the idea that people are out there trying to influence your results. Well, that’s just life. Even if no one was overtly trying to influence results, there still wouldn’t be a “level” playing field given due to the technical biases that crawlers have, such as favoring textual information over graphical.

Coming back to my PR model, those in newspapers, magazines and other type of media have “editorial” results just like search engines due. PR firms and others try to influence those results, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a good PR person can be a great asset in constructing a story, if they provide the facts you need. So, too, SEOs can and do play a role with search engines.

Returning to Google, the company has a long-standing opposition to paid inclusion as being unfair or as possibly biasing search results. There are also good reasons for them to have this attitude, which even some SEOs would agree with. However, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be other programs that allow SEOs to take part in the editorial process.

Google’s said before that it has internally discussed whether it should offer perhaps “webmaster services,” where site owners might be able to pay for express support in diagnosing editorial programs. The company hasn’t moved forward with this, out of fear in part that it might leave it open to accusations of selling out. I’d argue that the opposite is true, and that such a program would help Google’s PR, if not its results.

Search is often declared the second most popular online activity, after e-mail. Do you sense that search engines, Google in particular, may become too powerful?

On the web, I think it’s hard for people to be “locked in” to a particular web site. Nothing forces people to use Google, nor is it like there’s only one or two alternatives. There are several good search alternatives available. If Google were to abuse the “power” it has, you’ll see people abandon it and go elsewhere.

Certainly, what we see with Google is unprecedented. In addition to being an incredibly popular site of their own, they also power the hugely popular sites of AOL and Yahoo. No one has had this type of search volume, before. Having said this, from a “reach” perspective, Overture can still put you out in front of a huge audience, itself. That provides some counterbalance.

Overture is also a good lesson about why things seem to sometimes find their own balance. This time last year, Oveture was the king of paid listings, with major partnerships tied up with anyone who mattered. Today, Google had made major erosions in Overture’s reach. Similarly, this time next year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see if Google has perhaps lost some of the volume it commands. For example, if Yahoo decides to pursue a multple partner strategy and carry results from several crawlers, then Google will see some pullback.

Yahoo itself is also a great example. Should Google be regulated as a utility, because it is so powerful? People said exactly the same thing in 1997 about Yahoo, that it could make or break businesses, based on what it chooses to list. Today, you find SEOs debating whether it is even worth paying the Yahoo submission fee.

Have you been following the “PR for sale” debate? What’s your take on this?

I think it’s unfortunate in general that people today seem to think about links only in terms of what Google might like, rather than asking themselves what’s the intrinsic value behind getting a link.

Think a link will send you an audience you want in and of itself? Then ask for or pay for that link. Think your visitors would want to find a link for a particular resource on your site? Then install that link. These are the key criteria of linking, to me.

Following from this, I see nothing wrong with selling links and indeed Yahoo and LookSmart both have businesses that are all about this. They are link networks, qualified in that they have some strong editorial policies about approval in place. However, anyone selling a link and primarily aiming the sale around an intangible benefit, like that it might boost you on a search engine, is likely to face problems.

What do you see coming up? What will be the important emerging trends and technologies over the next couple of years?

It’s long overdue for search engines to do a better job of looking at our queries and delivering up more targeted results. Did someone search for something clearly news-related? Then pump out mostly news search results with a link to more web-wide results, rather than the opposite case that happens now. Same thing for other situations. Did I just search for “pictures of madonna?” Then you ought to give me image results, since that’s almost certainly what I want. Did I ask for “buying dvd players?” Then I may want both commercial product listings as well as informational resources. How about ensuring a good blend of both. I call this “mindreading.” Do a better job at reading my mind, understanding my intent, then give me matches from an appropriate database.

Another change is personalization. There are ways for search engines to measure what people are selecting from results based on their demographics. By using this data, you can then give an 18-year-old man living in the US different results for something like “music” compared to what you serve up to a 45-year-old woman living in France. There are privacy concerns, as well as concerns that users have that they’ll “miss” out because you are being so targeted. Nevertheless, there are ways to overcome these concerns and provide better results.

For search engine marketers, while free editorial results will not go away, you’re going to continue to see the cost of paid listings get more expensive and probably results weighted to more heavily favor paid inclusion listings, especially for commercial queries. So the bad news is, expect to pay more. The good news is, expect to have more influence. If you’re being asked to underwrite more of the cost of search, then you have a bigger say in how things operate. For example, think you ought to be able to better choose when and exactly where your paid listings appear? Speak loudly and demand that attention be paid to your concerns. No one wants their advertisers upset.

What search engine(s) do you use? If you could build the ultimate search engine, what would it be/do?

Like many people, I tend to use Google as a first choice. The Google Toolbar makes it easy, and Google quite often finds what I’m looking for. If it doesn’t, I often make a next stop at AllTheWeb.com, since it gives me a nice, clean interface, a large catalog of the web as well as great relevancy. And, if I’m in search of a list of things, I’ll still pop over to Yahoo to check out the directory categories.

Having named these players, I do get to the others, as well. It’s very common that if I’m researching something for a story, such as a problem a reader will have, I’ll be firing up the same seach at all the major players.

Those initial choices I make also tend to reflect my own habits and preferences. Other people may like other search engines, which is great. Relevancy can be subjective, and there’s a lot to be said about look-and-feel, as well as features. Google lacks auto-categorization, something others I know rave about finding at Vivisimo and Teoma. And I personally love that AllTheWeb, and now HotBot, are allowing themselves to be skinned. It’s nice to see that kind of personalization happening.

Google has just gone beta on their new product search, Froogle. First
impressions?

It certainly makes sense for them to do, given that so many people do product-oriented searching. At the moment, it remains feeling very much like the beta product that it is. Sorting by price is something that I’ll want to see, and I’m sure it will come. In fact, I’m sure we’ll see Google work all of its usual magic over the coming months to really reshape the service into something powerful. The real test will come
when the “shopping” tab goes up on the main Google site, or when Google starts suggesting product search links for appropriate queries in the way it currently does for news content. That will begin pushing people into the service, making it a possible powerhouse for online merchants.

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Many thanks Danny. What more is there to say, other than that’s it for the year. More to come in 2003…

Peter Da Vanzo is owner of Gofish Digital Marketing based in Wellington, New Zealand