Danny Sullivan Interview – Transcript

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Interview below:

Mike:              For the benefit of anyone in the industry who may know the name, but not much of your background Danny, can you tell us how you got into the search business?

Danny:           I was a newspaper journalist and I left in 1995 to start doing web development because I’d seen the web and thought that was going to take off.

Mike:              You were right!

Danny:           Yeah, phew! One of the things that we were doing was helping people get listed on the search engines, but nobody really knew much about it. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what were the best practices. What were the SEO things you needed to do even though we didn’t call it SEO then. And I published that into what was called A Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines. That took off even though the company did not.

The web development company ended up closing but the guide that I had started to develop took off and I kept at it and eventually turned it into what was called Search Engine Watch which I developed over the 10 years that I was doing that. Then I moved over and continued to do the same sort of things as Search Engine Land and developing up our SMX conference series and everything like that. It all came out of those early days.

Mike:              It’s interesting that you mention that back in the day the term ‘search engine optimization’ which I’ve always had a problem with as you know. That hadn’t been invented. What did we call it then?

Danny:           I would talk to people I guess, of products and services. I was talking about doing search engine tune-ups, that’s what our product was called that came off of it. I can’t recall when I first starting doing SEO. I think it was Bob Hyman who says he was the originator of the term. It came on fairly quickly.

Mike:              Bruce Clay thinks he was.

Danny:           Yeah. They can argue between it. It was like searching. I don’t think it really had a good term. Probably why SEO took off so quickly as it did once there was a term to go with.

Mike:              Did you have any kind of technical background at all before you started doing anything in search engines?

Danny:           Nothing formal. I mean I wasn’t a programmer but I had done some computer programming classes in high school. I could make my name appear on a screen in a row and that sort of thing. Like many people it was more like I was a tech enthusiast. There were PCs and things like that. I just loved using them and playing with them.

Mike:              There was kind of a bit of them and us with search engines. Boy, were there so many search engines around back in the day compared to the scant few that we have now. You were one of the first people who actually managed to knock the doors down and get in and talk to some of those people. Even managed to unmask Google guy Matt Cutts I think way back in the day. How did that relationship develop with the guys at the search engines?

Danny:           Well, early on I had been doing my guide and I also did a couple of freelance articles for publications that no longer even exist. I think one was like Net Guide or whatever. In talking with them I think it helped that I was doing not just … Nobody knew what my guide was but they did understand some of the publications that I’d helped get original contacts with them.

Then also fairly quickly the guide and the work that I was doing was picking up. There just weren’t a lot of people covering search engines on a regular basis so I got to know the people at the search engines. They got to understand I think that I was the only dedicated beat reporter that was actually covering what they were doing. The relationship developed from there.

Mike:              Which is very cool because you broke the doors down and developed that kind of relationship. Now we’ve gone full circle again and they very rarely want to speak to anybody these days.

Danny:           Yeah, they can definitely be very, very closed.

Mike:              I was asking you way back in the day in the year 2000 what changes you had seen. One of the things that you talked about, you said “One of the current big things is that there are all these different ways for people to pay to either improve their listings or to make absolutely certain that they get listed.” Back in the day getting that link or in the directory at Yahoo or open directory, those kind of things and pay to play. All of that has kind of disappeared. It doesn’t really work anymore. Does it?

Danny:           It’s a huge irony that last week Yahoo announced that they were going to close their directory. There was a time when being in the Yahoo directory was great for direct traffic. Then also Google came along said well, you’re in big directories. That’ll help you perhaps rank better and suddenly we had a million directories launched on the back of that because everybody wanted to buy directory links.

What’s interesting is actually the biggest pay-to-play of course has been Google Shopping and a huge reversal there which was an incredibly open search engine for anybody to be listed for free. They got completely flipped over and turned into entirely pay for play. It makes you wonder if we’re going to see that come back. That paid inclusion had died off and died off on the back primarily of Google telling everybody it was evil and trying to stand out there. Once Google reversed it and said “We’re doing paid inclusion.” I think that’s going to cause…

Mike:              You think that really is paid inclusion?

Danny:           Yeah, definitely. Yes, that is the traditional definition. You want to be in Google Shopping, you have to pay to be included. It won’t guarantee whether you’re going to rank better so that makes it paid inclusion as opposed to paid placement or the traditional search advertisements. Even though it’s a bit different. Like in the past where you didn’t buy the search ads and they were mixed in. I think it still falls in that definition.

Mike:              Kind of like the paid inclusion Inktomi thing when they did the submit a few URLs. That was one of the questions that I asked you about actually when we were talking about what’s new at search engines and you talked about directories. I said to you “Does that mean the add your URL is going to go away?”

Danny:           Mercifully it did.

Mike:              One of the other things we that we talked about was spam and cloaking which was very close to my heart back in the day. I think certainly search engines, and there were many of them around at the time, did have real major difficulties dealing with people with spam. Kind of a different situation now I guess.

Danny:           The idea that cloaking still goes on but certainly not the way that it was. I think especially because it’s been decoupled from the paid inclusion program that made cloaking very effective. You could submit the page and really test the page. Know really well not it’s much more random of what’s happened with Google. The thing of it today really still seems to be buying the paid links, doing all the link networks. I was almost laughing over the thing that happened last week where the private blog networks were all hit. I go “What the hell is a private blog network?”

Mike:              I didn’t figure that one out to be honest.

Danny:           It’s not private like people can see them, but they’re private like we made a blog network we never actually intend for the public to find. We just really want Google to find them so they can see that we’re linking between ourselves and we get the link credit and then they get caught, it’s like “How did people find our private blog network we made just for Google?” I don’t know. I mean maybe Google found it since you made it for them. Those link kind of schemes still seem to be holding strong in the way we used to talk about cloaking as the big thing people focused on.

Mike:              When you and I first started to doing search engine optimization there was a requirement. A bigger need for it I think then on the technical side because the crawler is so primitive. It’s a lot smarter now but back in the day it was so primitive. A lot of what we were doing was just trying to make sites accessible so they could get crawled. It wasn’t even just so much about the ranking or search engine positioning as I seem to remember Fredrick Marckini referring to it. I think the art of search engine optimization has changed considerably since we first started doing that. What do you think the major changes are?

Danny:           They certainly gotten much better at dealing with a lot of the technical issues that are out there. Some of the things have changed also. People really don’t build sites out of frames anymore, so phew! But people are doing a lot of advanced HTML out of advanced CSS type sites.

Mike:              I was building flash websites!

Danny:           Yeah, exactly. They’ve gotten better at dealing with Flash. They’ve gotten better at dealing with Java Script. There’s still architectural considerations that I think you do have to consider. There are still things like title tags. I mean it sounds crazy but they still make a difference. People report that they still make a difference when they’ve actually gone through and made sure the pages had all the tags and best practices SEO. I think that in some ways things are easier. I think the real big challenges have come in now. The rise of the structured data. The mark up. What markup should you do? Should you spend time one something like authorship only to have Google decide “We don’t want to deal with that anymore.”

Mike:              That came and went.

Danny:           Yeah. To figure out where those kinds of things are that you want to spend that kind of time.

Mike:              We talked about meta tags as well. I always thought that people laugh at meta tags. If only people had been honest with them, the web would be a much easier place to navigate. A bit like the library. Anyway, back in November of the year 2000 this is how you and I looked by the way. This is us in Dallas, Texas.

Mike:              We flashed that one up on the cameras so that people can see that. You survived very well whereas I appear to look like I’m the father of the guy who used to be the road manager for Spinal Tap.

Danny:           I think you’re all right.

Insert image.

Mike:              Zooming back into the future. One of the interesting things that I know about that interview back in the day is we didn’t talk … Other than mentioning paid listings we didn’t talk anything about paid search and ad words. Back in 2000. All right. I’ll be back with Danny Sullivan in just a minute from now.

Short break.

Mike:           Here we are back live again. Live on 65, the 65th floor of the Empire State Building here in New York City. With me is Danny Sullivan. We’ve talked about SEO going back to the original days 15 to 16 years ago for us. As I mentioned previously we didn’t touch on paid search at all. That has made the major difference with search engines. How have you seen the difference with the way that ad words was rolled out by Google and where we are now.

Danny:           It’s been a phenomenal change in the growth of the space. Just literally only the space alone of what they’re taking up. That you can do searches these days and the above the fold thing can be all ads for some of the searches that you do. Which was back in the day when Google was a big deal when they had an occasional paid link that appeared. I think it’s also amazing to the degree that programmatic and on-demand is happening. The news that came out today where Facebook Atlas is now going to allow you to combine Facebook targeting with your paid search with ads at the same time and that is going to happen within so many milliseconds or microseconds or nanoseconds or whatever. It’s stunning.

Mike:              I thought Atlas had disappeared completely and there is it.

Danny:           Came back.

Mike:              Yes. Paid search, it is actually much more complicated now. People are managing. Certainly here we have guys who are handling millions and millions of keywords on behalf of clients. That in itself is a more structured way to go about things than search engine optimization, which is something very close to my heart, to both of us.

Let’s talk about the current challenges and whether some people are thinking about what they’re doing correctly. I mean panda, penguin, these kind of things. I see people all the time complaining about the fact “I got hit by panda. I got hit by penguin.” I mean maybe if you weren’t doing such dumb ass things you probably wouldn’t end up that way. What are your thoughts about these new modifications and roll outs from Google?

Danny:           I think some of the things like penguin, it’s easy to assume that from reading stuff on-line that everybody’s been hit by it when it’s actually a minority of people. Oftentimes a minority of people who know exactly why they got hit. I don’t want to say that there are people who have not been hit by Google who totally should have never been hit. I have gone through so many examples. Even where people have told me “I did absolutely nothing at all.” You start going through and said “You had to know that this was bad. You just had to know.”

I think there’s a lot of people who haven’t been chasing the latest things. They have stayed with the tried and true, best practices. They are grounded in solid content and they back businesses that have a reason to exist and businesses that Google absolutely has to list. I think they’ve continued to be successful with it and that they are able to grow stuff. I think that the challenges are how not to be too aggressive going after SEO and getting yourself in trouble on the one hand.

I think the other challenge really is for the people who aren’t even thinking that. Just how to respond to Google itself changing things up where doing more of the direct answers and doing more of the structured data usage. It’s not like in the past where you were competing to be one of the ten people who are listed. Now you’re almost competing with Google in some cases. I think people are still trying to get their heads around “How do I even cope with this?”

Mike:              I think there are two sides to that. I mean I firmly believe … It’s not being heartless or cruel that many of the people who do get hit and come to me and say “Mike, what am I going to do about it? I’ve lost 30, 40% of my business.” What a dumb idea to let somebody own that much of your business in the first place. Do you think Google is good enough or good at being able to give weather reports to let people know that these things are coming?

Danny:           Sometimes they’ve been. I think they could do a better job. They announced panda that just came out which was great. We’ve had four months between panda updates. Before the last panda update it has been almost a year before we had one. Either there were no panda updates that happened or there were panda updates that were happening that they weren’t telling anybody. Either way it would be good if we knew. The penguin, we haven’t had an update that we know of for over a year, almost a year now.

I think that if you’re going to have a filter designed to penalized or hit people and the ideas that you can try to redeem yourself then you should be running on a regular basis telling people what’s happening. I definitely would like to see more transparency about when they have these big algorithmic updates. I’d especially like them to let people know if they’ve been hit by it, so you’re not just guessing. The worst thing is when they roll two of them out together and your don’t know. Like which one was it?

Mike:              It is interesting that sometimes in the industry. I mean I did chuckle just a little bit when people started writing and getting so excited about this whole hummingbird thing which I have my own ideas on what that is all about. Everybody’s saying “This is terrible. The hummingbird changes everything.” Then you get word from Matt Cutts at Google saying “Well, it’s been out there for three months and nobody noticed in the first place.” What are the strongest signals that we’re always thinking about that Google is looking for? We’ve talked about… Content is what we talked about 15 years ago. That’s what we’re still talking about. You were always saying it has to be great content. Is text on a page still very important? Are links really important? Is link anchor text?

Danny:           The strongest signal is going to be Google+ because if you’re a signed in user and you connected with a brand on Google+ and they’re sharing content, that consistently seemed to trump everything else. That brand’s content will show up in your personalized search results. Maybe Google+ won’t exist very much longer. We’ll see what happens with it but right now that’s still …

Mike:              It might go away like the author thing.

Danny:           Yeah. That’s still a thing that can trump all the other things. After that I think that the links signal is still very, very strong. It’d have to be the right link signal. I think that too many people go down the mistake of “I’m going to get a lot links or I’ll buy a bunch of links or I’m going to have all the links be the same anchor text.” It really is that you have authoritative links that have been pointing back at you. Which goes to having an authority site in and of itself. That you build up a site that has some degree of reputation to it. Usually connotative by the links that’s coming back to you.

Mike:              There’s also the end user signal. I’ve been talking about that a long time. I think Andrew Tompkins who is now with Google as one of the engineers had written a paper when he was with Yahoo talking the tool bar data. The end user data that they have. Particularly linking that to shopping carts and to commercial queries. I think myself that if you are creating good content and Google can see that people are consuming your content then that signal from the links might be great. Maybe it’s the end user and the amount of traffic that comes through that particular content.

Danny:           To the degree that they can detect that, yeah. I think that all goes back to the authority thing. That’s where it can also be difficult in terms of the people trying to think “Well, what do I do better?” It’s very easy to focus on “Well, I do more links.” Or “I’ll do more of my on-site SEO.” It’s tired to say but the better way to go at all that of course is “Have I built the right experience for my user?”

Because if you built the kick-ass site that has the great content that people are really going to really going to be engaging with, all the things that you’re trying to do to do better on Google will flow from that. You’ll have the engagement if they’re looking at engagement. You should have people who think you’re important enough that they’ll start linking to you in natural ways that sense with it from there. I think that’s one of the places people tend to go wrong on. They don’t start from that foundation. They need to.

Mike:              Exactly. Thank you very much. It was great after all of this time to have you come in and join us. Intriguing to listen to some of the thoughts that we had back in the day and the thoughts that we have now. I hope SMX is a great success for you, it usually is. Danny Sullivan, thank you very much for coming in.

Danny:           Thank yo

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