DANA: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.
MARK: Well, what we've been doing here at The History of SEO is backing up in time, and asking folks a little bit about the job they were doing before they got into search and then how they got introduced to the world of search engine optimization.
DANA: My history in SEO actually goes way back before it was called SEO. It was called search engine positioning back when we first started messing around with it. And when I say "we," it was my company. At the time, I was a young Vice President at Bien Logic. It was a startup here in San Diego that did web development, a very early web design company. They started in '94 building some of the first graphically rich websites on the Internet. I joined them in late '95.
At the time, in '96, when we really started building more and more of these sites, we were trying to figure out how to be found. There weren't very many search engines back then and people didn't have the comfort level that they do now with using them.
So it wasn't as big a deal, but we did want to be found on Yahoo!, which was, of course, the major place to be as a directory, and there were a few others.
We actually owned an early search engine, called Planet Earth, which was one of the largest collections of links, that actually was probably right up there with Yahoo! As far as being one of the largest directories of links on the Internet at the time.
It wasn't critical, but it was something that you thought you wanted to do to offer your customers, because we were an agency. At the time, we didn't do it ourselves. There was a company here in San Diego called Green Flash that did search engine positioning.
In probably '96 or '97, they were doing what would now be probably considered some fairly aggressive techniques: cloaking, pages jacking, any number of things which we really didn't know anything about back then.
MARK: That was just pure innovative back then.
DANA: Well yeah, of course, because there were no rules, there was no Google. You just did what you could to get to the top. That was what you did. There wasn't a whole lot of competition, because very few people were even paying attention to the meddlers and things like that in their sites. They were just barely putting up gray pages with rainbow bars. So in that respect, it was actually easier to find sites because they were all text. There was nothing like Flash or anything back then, so everything was text.
But it was really messy, very difficult to get some organization. There was no common set of standards for how people were building websites. The W3C hadn't gotten much strength back then, and it was still a very messy, messy Internet at that point.
Remember, most people back then were still on dial up modems. It was even a rare thing for us to be on an ISDN line at that time. We thought that was broadband in 1996.
DANA: [laughs] Yeah, and I guess it was '97, Green Flash got sued by the Disney Corporation for page jacking. To describe what page jacking is, back in the old scary days with search engines, one of the reasons why people didn't use search engines was because it was actually very easy to deceive search engines by providing them with one set of content, and then providing humans with a different set of content.
So you could quite literally click on a listing, in a search engine like AltaVista, that said "Disney: download your favorite Mickey wallpaper here" and you would click on it and end up at a porn site, because this page jacking tactic was fairly easy to pull off at that time.
The search engines themselves were pretty young and chasing the portal thing, and really weren't paying a lot of attention to improving their search engine technology and weeding out all the spam and bad things. They were quickly overrun by the prevalence of a number of pornographers, gamblers, etc, spammers, people who could very easily trick the search engines into permitting the wrong types of content.
So, it was a pretty dark and turbulent time in search engine history. [laughs] And we, as an agency realized pretty quickly that by subbing our SEO workouts to another company and not really having any understanding of what they were doing that we were putting our own customers and our agency at risk.
So, in I think it was probably in late '96, '97 we started learning how to do this on our own and trying to get some core understandings about how to build websites to be search friendly, what that meant; how to position websites within search engines. And part of us went on our way with that for a couple of years and then it became, through me, a pretty fascinating journey because at the time there were some San Diego companies that were doing some interesting stuff with, again, what was probably considered cloaking. But, ultimately, became some core technology to some of the biggest names that you know now that had inclusion engines and some analytics that go into major online marketing platforms today.
MARK: So, who were some of the folks that you started to meet, maybe in San Diego or outside of San Diego, where you started to get a sense that, hey, other people are doing this too?
DANA: What yeah, there wasn't a lot of meeting people back then, probably wasn't until Danny pulled the first engine strategies conference together that many of us started having a community. We didn't really know how to reach each other; we didn't really a very little talking [laughs] before then. There wasn't a lot of understanding or sharing except on the boards when people would message to each other and see if we had a lot of people on the boards. But, some of the early names, like, I didn't even really know that much about the community. I was introduced to Danny Sullivan through Catherine Seda, and she was an employee at our company at the time, at SiteLab. By the way, just to disclose, somewhere along in 1996, I and some of the other partners there at Bien Logic bought the company and spun it off to become SiteLab. So, in 1997, we were legally SiteLab and Catherine Seda was probably employee number one or two.
She's since gone on to a really splendid career writing books about online advertising. But she was participating in the online boards and she managed the media department, a sideline at that time, doing all of our online advertising. And with tinkering with this new placement, we were doing paid banners. They were keyword banners back in the day and there were no text links, you couldn't buy the top line on a search engine. Google really wasn't even a speck in anyone's eye at that point. And we were very, very, very pleased with the results that we were getting on our Yahoo! Banners and things like that.
You have to understand, back in the early ages, keyword banners, I literally got a 40 percent click rate on the banner ad once on a Yahoo! placement.
Dana: Insane, insane. Far beyond what they're getting today but it was still very new, there weren't that many visitors and it was a highly relevant ad and people weren't as afraid of banner ads as they are now, you know. So it was a very successful first taste of what was to become an incredibly effective platform for advertising and marketing. Then...
MARK: So, that's a quite a long, exciting career at a very early pioneer age, really.
DANA: Yeah, it was the brand spanking beginning of this whole thing. And, like I said, there weren't there weren't too many places for us to reach out and talk to each other. There was the online advertising discussion boards, that's 0 8.com, and they were one of the few places where we would hang out and Search Engine Watch, which was Danny's publication back in the day. And we would check these out and we were probably been a subscriber to Planet Ocean since the late '90s as well. I still love their stuff. I still find to be a fascinating font of information.
Definitely, you were asking things that newbies should do. The best $99 you'll ever invest is the Planet Ocean newsletter.
And so, like, yeah, there was no community back then until Danny started getting people together and we started talking and sharing ideas and sharing innovations. And Cat Seda had participated in a forum, posting the results of our first ad auction for the top listing on the search engine it was an ultimate ad auction back then.
They auctioned off their top links and it was a real time auction. And at the time we pretty much decided it was not worth our time. Because it was very time intensive. There was no automated bids, management tools. You had to constantly move your bids up and down manually a penny at a time. And it was ultimately hundreds of agency dollars at a time being spent to manage what was an incredibly small media buy.
So we didn't think it was going to be particularly effective, but we posted about it because the search engine marketing community was just horrified that any search engine would auction off the top links because it was very unethical. They were screaming that the FCC to get involved and NO! You know that was at the federal communications.
MARK: Right, Right, Do you happen to remember when that was?
DANA: I believe that was '99 was AltaVista's auction.
MARK: And so let's see.
DANA: So Danny was planning this conference and he saw Cat's posting about it. And since we're one of seven people on the planet who experienced a very brief phenomenon because AltaVista shut it down immediately afterwards, they invited us to come out and speak so we did.
MARK: Which one was that? Which city?
DANA: That was San Francisco. That was the first CF.
MARK: And around the tables?
DANA: Yeah, [laughing] Oh! I think we did have a proper stage I remember it was very small. It was quite a small group getting together. But it was I remember laughing because some of the people that showed up it was a couple of guys at the lunch table who ran a bunch of porn sites. And, yeah, they promptly declared that they couldn't learn anything here because they were years ahead of us in terms of their own tactics, and ticked off. And so here there was those of us who were feeling pretty smart. What we already know and felt pretty stomped by that so god only knows what types of stuff that they were doing.
MARK: [laughing] Yeah, in all these interviews you know all roads lead to Danny Sullivan. [laughing]
DANA: Yea, you know I have to say he really set the culture for the industry and I'll give him a lot of credit for that. His very nature in that of precarious reporter. He's very inquisitive, but level headed, very smart. He brought a sense of intellectualism to the industry, and conversation and people responded to it. They just many of us came from all different walks of life. My advertising background was primarily in print before I got into the Internet and I was a journalist before that. I was not a technology person although I worked with a lot of technology costumers. There were people in our industry who are firefighters before they became search marketers. There people from all walks of life that got into this because they were just so fascinated by the idea that you can use a combination of marketing savvy linguistics and technical skill to essentially change a marketing landscape for yourself.
MARK: Yeah, that was a wild rodeo, like you said. There were no rules yet.
MARK: And just to like a great company SiteLab that kind of says a lot. [laughing]
DANA: Yeah, I was really proud to be part of the movement and proud to be early on a very vocal part of trying to create some sanity in this space. Because, like I said, one of the net effects of having people from random backgrounds including a lot of technology backgrounds was that these are not corporate people for the most part. They weren't coming in from the highest echelons at Hewlett Packard to do this. That came much later. These were the explorers, early on, and many of them didn't necessarily want to be organized. In fact, when we tried to start SEMPO, Barbara Coll laid down the ground work for that in, I guess, 2004. I think it was 2003 when she started talking about it. It was pretty soundly rebuffed by a number of people in the industry who said that they didn't want to organize. They didn't want to be part of an industry guideline or a group that was going to tell them what to do.
MARK: I guess that was misunderstood, or maybe the advantages couldn't be seen, but it sure seems like SEMPO is doing well today.
DANA: Oh we are. It wasn't without a lot of struggle and a lot of committed people trying to make it happen. The good thing is, eventually, search marketing brought people who really did want to work together to build something much larger, which ultimately will bring more respect to what we do as an industry. I think there's still a fair amount of distrust out there. I still occasionally stumble on websites where there is a great deal of fear and mistrust being created about what it is we do. There are still people calling it voodoo. There are still people who call it snake oil. There's still a lot of misplaced anxiety for the most part, because the names out there are generally pretty good. The people who are consulting have been doing this for a while.
Even the newbs who come in and start this up right away, there's nothing that's going to prevent them from just being a good solid businessperson.
MARK: Right. How did you go about learning more about the way search engines behaved? I mean, you're reading Danny's column, it sounding like, and lots of sites to work on. What was your personal growth path like?
DANA: Well, we're privileged to have customers, which fund our explorations. Frankly, they were excited to be part of that, and so there's a fair amount of experimentation being done on our part. Back in the day, we did do a lot of aggressive tactics, we did do white on white text, we did do cloaking. In fact, I still probably have an old cloaking script laying around somewhere. So, we definitely partook in all of the above tactics and we shared in the community, read obsessively, and worked to our engineers.
Disclosure: I'm not a programmer myself. So what I would bring to the table is a love of linguistics, an understanding of audience and how people think, and how to appropriately express what it is you do in the right keyword. My great love is sort of the keywording aspects of it and the analytical research behind that, as well as the advertising. But on SEO, as you know, you can't be all things to all people on all search engines at all times. So one of the very first things that you have to do as a search professional is help clients focus and prioritize. And that's one of my special skills.
MARK: If someone was getting started today, down that path, maybe they have no experience whatsoever, but they have a project in front of them that it seems like SEO could benefit from, and the decision to do it in house or learn this skill themselves has already been made, how would you recommend they get started?
DANA: My favorite book to recommend, and it's for a newb, not for somebody who's a little bit further along, but for somebody that's looking at a gargantuan task and wants to disassemble it, especially somebody who's a fairly methodical person, would be "Search Engine Optimization: One Hour A Day." I really like that book. I think it makes it very digestible, and it's not such an insurmountable object when you break it down into an hour a day. I think, subsequently, the same publishers have put out a social media companion, as well.
The second book I would get would be Shari Thurow's book. She's got a couple of different iterations of her book that's come out. She's probably in her third publishing at this point for search friendly websites.
MARK: And she also has a lot of good focus on usability.
DANA: There is definitely a great intersection between usability and SEO. If you really think about it, if you look at keywords that people type as expressed intentions, and we know certainly from watching their behaviors in advertising that they're going to click on the ads or the links where they see, their keyword repeated. It's a matter of: "I'm expressing an intention. I will then reward whomever is giving be back that expectation in the exact same language and way that I phrased it."
So, the more frequently you can make a customer happy, or make a visitor happy, by speaking to them in their own language and satisfying their intention, then you get happy users that way and ultimately it helps your SEO, as well.
MARK: They got a couple of books behind them. They're in that one hour a day thing, and they're applying what they've learned. Do you have other forums online or other things that you would include in there as first tier of SEO?
DANA: Oh, gosh, there's a kajillion of them. I like Jill Whalen's column too. She writes a really good column. It's Top Search Ranking. I'm probably going to say it wrong. I don't have these things bookmarked, so I just search for them. I'm so lazy.
MARK: High Rankings, is her site.
DANA: High Rankings, yeah. I find Jill's style of communication to be very accessible to all her non techies. I really think, though, if you're not a technical person, you could really do yourself a favor by taking a basic HTML class, just so that you are familiar with the working of the page, with all those various tags.
It's going to feel a lot less scary to you, if you have a lot more comfort there. Even if you're not out making websites, at least you understand the language, at least you understand the basic parts.
MARK: And then you also mentioned Planet Ocean.
DANA: Planet Ocean, Planet Ocean.
MARK: Subscribe to that newsletter?
DANA: Yeah, a very great newsletter. They give you monthly updates, and they have this big e book that they update on a regular basis. You don't watch it as obsessively now, as you did back then. I mean back when we first started subscribing; the engines themselves were going through ridiculous tumults and changes.
Their data bases were flipping frequently, and every month you would tune into the newsletter to find out who was allowing this, and what tactic works now on that, and now you have to repeat the keyword no more than six times per page on AltaVista as opposed to Infoseek, who only likes it four times.
You had all these different recipes that you had to follow for every search engine. It's actually got a little more simple now, frankly, in some ways, as far as you don't have to please so many different types of search engines.
It's more complex, because we know now that the methods of ranking are far more complex. The individual engines like Google and Yahoo! are certainly making it a much more complex landscape. Personal as well. You've got your local and your personalization stuff kicking in, as well as, potentially social media marketers.
MARK: Yeah, I think it was 2002 when Yahoo!, MSN, and Google shared market share almost equally.
DANA: Oh yeah, Google was just brand spanking new then. I think they had even a smaller share in '01.
MARK: Right, right, and then that's all she wrote. Google has pretty much been dominating that space for a long time, and 70% plus of searches are done now on Google. And then Yahoo!'s a strong number two, and I think MSN is a small fraction of that traffic. You used to have to pay attention to three or four equally.
MARK: What do you think about the conferences that are available today that weren't available when you were getting started?
DANA: Oh, it's every bit a plus you have to choose from now. You don't even have to travel very far, or go very long, before you get your conference fix. I like the fact that they've kept it a broader conversation in terms of understanding the match up between search and other types of online publishing and marketing.
You've got your social media stuff and you've got your advertising. Probably the one thing I do miss, believe it or not, is the really super techie parts of search engine strategies.
Back in the day there were just as many sessions that were devoted to the technology that you used on your website, the actual search engine on your site, and the types of technological products that people were putting together for information organization and mixing.
That's really out of the conversation now, and much more in the background, I guess, or on the very specific IT blogs and forums. Although I think, to be honest, it's probably one of the most important conversations that isn't happening.
DANA: It's not very sexy, because it's old, it's old news.
MARK: It is, embarrassing might not be the right word, but I've been to a website of a very well known company, and they have a search box and millions of pages. I type something there, and I can't seem to find what I'm looking for. I can take that same search phrase to Google, which has indexed this other company's website better than they can themselves, and navigate their site better through Google.
DANA: I think you'll find that, actually, to be common. I do the same trick myself. There are a number of websites that I prefer to search via Google site colon search rather than using their internal search engine. It's such a minimal investment for companies to make, because all they frankly have to do is put maybe $40,000 into a really primo technology. Even license a Google appliance or something. They're not that expensive.
But the money you spend on even a couple of months or weeks of Google AdWords could be saved by just doing a better search on your own site. Not so much to influence your search ranking, but to get just more out of your website itself. If people can't find what they're looking for on your website, your chances of converting them are going to be much lower.
MARK: Yeah, then you go out and pay for an ad to find them, and they were already there once.
DANA: Oh, absolutely, then you create frustration. The minute you create frustration, you lose a visitor.
MARK: Right. Well, you're in SEMPO. Have you joined SEMPO yet in our little story? We know that you're at SiteLab, actually.
DANA: Yeah, prior to SiteLab we kind of tinkered along, growing like a weed there. In terms of how SiteLab, at the time, was approaching the marketing, we were very much known for search engine marketing, but probably still doing only half of our revenues in website development and technology, software apps, things like that in the online space, doing a lot of pretty cool early development. It wasn't until, I guess '04 when Barb Coll started SEMPO. I was already a speaker at that point. I had been speaking quite a bit on pay per click. What I was mostly known for in the search engine space was the search engine advertising and all things related. [laughs]
MARK: So you were in Overture very, very early?
DANA: Very early, yeah. We were one of their early customers. We very much believed then, and still do continue to believe, in search advertising being an incredibly effective and fun kind of advertising. It's very different, quite different. But it's harder, harder than your average ad campaign. It's as complex as making a television commercial in many ways, a lot of little pieces that go into it. The ongoing media buy is where it gets a little bit more complex.
Back in those days, you really couldn't ignore a campaign the way you can now in a certain way. There were very few pieces of software that managed your bids, or managed them well. The logic within them, the business rules were just being built. So, if you didn't watch your bids, you might end up overpaying. The daily caps kind of got out of hand.
The technology itself was a little bit willy nilly. So, we had to watch them like a hawk, every single day at the end there, managing the campaign. It was primarily about bid managing in those days.
So, I was still fulltime at SiteLab up until earlier this year when I left to go to Newsforce. I mean, I'm still an owner at SiteLab, too, so it gets even more confusing.
MARK: So, what prompted the shift over to Newsforce?
DANA: SiteLab was one of three companies that helped incubate Newsforce from several years ago. I was looking, with our CEO at the time, for the next thing in search. The landscape's been pretty well exploited. There's not a whole lot of new technologies coming out. We were looking at where we could create some intellectual property and exciting technology in search that hadn't been done yet, new markets, new technology.
And what identified at the time was that there was this emerging space that was online PR. And so, we created a super easy little $20 per use optimization tool to allow PR people to optimize a press release for a search engine so that they can use it with their regular wire services. It just gets a little more out of it. It kind of dumbed down the process to make it easier rather than trying to teach everyone on the planet how to do SEO. We figure we would reduce it down to a set of recommendations and make it easier for people to consume.
That would be the first product that launched back in 2006. Then earlier this year, we launched a network. We wanted to create a paid placement network and this is where we started mashing up the PR and advertising world pretty significantly. You may have noticed the share that advertising and marketing is very much hijacking PR in the online space, and making it into a very different kind of art form that's a combination of social media, traditional outreach, earned media, blogger relations. All of these sort of ways of doing PR are getting quite fragmented with the new ways of doing PR.
Our new network, the Newsforce Network, is a paid placement of sponsored content network which engages newsreaders in a very different way. It looks on the surface kind of like a long text link but it's about promoting headlines of your content into the mainstream news, into the specialty news. In the same way you can buy your way to the top of search engines, we're creating for you to buy your way to the forefront of news consumption.
DANA: Yeah. We think so.
Mark: Yeah. That's a neat twist.
DANA: Thanks. We like it.
MARK: Can I go back to these new folks getting started and I go to a conference and it seems like there is always someone that asks from the podium if this is their first conference please your hand. And I see quite a few hands go up and you mention some really good books "One Hour a Day" and Shari Thurow and Joe Whalen's website High Rankings, and Planet Ocean does an online newsletter and it sounds like you are a fan of the conferences.
DANA: I am. Good training, too. SEMPO Institute has trainings for online certification and, believe it or not, I have taken one of Bruce Clay's course as well. He is a great teacher. I like his training courses. They are very specific to SEO.
MARK: And the simple stuff is a remote training sort of online webinar, right?
DANA: That's right. You can do it in your jammies. [laughs] In the middle of the night, if you feel like it.
MARK: Both feel like excellent resources. Any other words for these new folks getting going?
DANA: The forums are probably the place to get very specific technical questions answered. I think there are a number of forums. I still love WebmasterWorld. That is one of my all time favorite places to go to get some really good straight facts from people. There are a few liars in there, but for the most part. [laughs] They like to obfuscate things. But, yeah, I love WebmasterWorld that spreads beyond. KC has a very active conference with PubCob, too, that is very well attended by more of the technical SEO crews. If you really to focus on SEO, that is definitely on your list to go to. Plus it's a lot of fun.
MARK: Yeah. It does seem like in the forums and there is a lot of information and I always worry about folks get either, maybe that's a true fact, but if they take out of context it could be a bad idea for them. Or sometimes, not necessarily any one particular forum, but there is just a lot of bad advice out there, too. How could you possibly learn how to discern good from bad amongst that sea of factoids? It does seem like a tough challenge.
DANA: It is but like with any other advice, be it love or technical, listen, take it with a grain of salt, experiment on your own and report back what you find. [laughs] [laughter]
MARK: Well, I want to thank you again for your time and we appreciate all your help. And hopefully, if I need it, we can do a follow up with you and get some more questions answered.
DANA: Sure. Yeah, it would be fun to talk a little bit more about SEMPO as well. Some people have some questions about how that all works, and what we do and what all of those membership fees go for, and things like that.
MARK: Do you want to take a minute and do that?
DANA: Sure. I'll tell you it's...
MARK: We're SEMPO fans over here.
MARK: We are SEMPO fans here.
DANA: Oh good, we love SEMPO. SEMPO has been a great joy to be part of. Because I think the people who are in leadership, and all of our members, have been great believers in trying to do outreach. Fundamentally, we have three primary directives as an organization outreach, education and research. We want the whole world to know about search and how great it is and to buy more of it and to evolve the space. Because the more people who know it and love it, the less we're going to hear about the fear, uncertainly and doubt. We'll have a hell of a lot more acceptance of it as a just a normal market tactic. It's not snake oil. It's just marketing. So that's a very large part of what we do is try to keep the education going out there.
Another part is research. As we find that search bumps up against so many other types of marketing, and into the analytics fields and the technical fields. There are a number of places that we can look at aligning our research with other organizations in doing our own customary search to find out, "OK, just how is important is search and is it worth it to be at the top of the search engines? How does this affect your brand influence? How does it affect the overall sales? What does it really do in the mind of the consumer?"
So understanding that world and the individual behaviors within that, as well as our industry research. It's very important for us too. When people in the financial world look to make investments in our space, which frankly funds many of the innovations that we have gotten along the way, they want to know that it is a healthy space. They want to have some bellwethers.
As the organizations, through the industry mouthpiece simple as an organization report are not just the paid advertising spend, but also on technology, SEO, a number of movements, tactics and trends within the space. It's very important for us to continue to be that ongoing bellwether to report out there what's happening.
MARK: And SEMPO stands for Search Engine Marketers Professional Organization?
DANA: Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization.
MARK: Marketing, thank you. So would that imply, if someone's in house, is SEMPO still for them as well?
DANA: Oh heck, yeah. Oh gosh! I don't have the staff yet. We don't have a clear number yet on what's the in house versus the agencies. But we have a number of in house. In fact, a very active in house committee, as a matter of fact, that does their own research. They ran a salary survey this last year to find out [laughs] how much they were making and whether they should ask for raises. [laughs] In house is very important. Search engine marketing professional is anyone who is engaged in search engine marketing, even if it's not 100 percent of your job.
MARK: Excellent. OK, what does it cost per year to be a member?
DANA: SEMPO membership is $299, and then we have corporate membership starting at a $1,000, and Circle for $5,000.
MARK: That's it?
DANA: There is information on the website, which is sempo.org. So you can find out what you get at all those different levels. For newbies starting out, by the way, I always recommend they get a SEMPO membership. Because what I think people don't talk about a whole is that we get basically RFPs on the website. We don't market it a whole lot because it's not really our primarily reason for being, but because so many people do ask us for recommendations. We finally put a forum up and so if you are a beginner or a consultant you'll get anywhere from one to five leads a week that come in on the general SEMPO request line. So those do come in and there's a constant outreach, of networking among your peers. If you need to reach somebody who does SEO in China, we got them. You have got an instant global network that are just a couple of clicks away for you.
MARK: That's excellent. I didn't even know about SEO in China. [laughs]
DANA: We do. We have actually got our first SEMPO Circle member in China this year, and we, just last week, got our first Russian member. Isn't that cool?
MARK: Wow!! That is cool.
DANA: It is. It is all over the place. We are now in oh my gosh! I think it's like 43 countries. It's insane at what we are growing.
MARK: And that's like four years old.
DANA: Yup, actually we're just entering our fifth year. So we're proud to say we're officially now five years old. Ooh hoo!!
MARK: That is great news. Well, thank you again for your time and hope to talk to you again soon.
DANA: Thank you.