We are sitting in one of Marshall's favorite Thai restaurant's in Bend, Oregon on January 14th, 2008. We start by asking him about some of his observations over the years in SEO...
MARSHALL: I’ve seen a lot of this come full circle. The one that really got me I think last year was when I saw SEOmoz Rand Fishkin who is very smart at what he’s doing, he’s kind of the second coming of Daniel Sullivan, if you will. He’s been a big voice, he’s got a huge megaphone, he’s up in Seattle, he’s young, he’s aggressive, and he’s got a lot of ideas. He did something that I thought was very interesting, he put out an SEO quiz. It created a lot of controversy and buzz just around some of the questions that were in there. There were 85 questions, a lot of them were arguable, and the answers were not necessarily… I mean you would think that the answers were so cut and dry. I thought that was very interesting because once you took the test and got beyond a certain point you could take a little certificate or a little icon and it was basically that you were SEOmoz certified; that you had passed this test, and that you therefore could consider yourself a search specialist. I thought it was very interesting because the link went back to SEOmoz and so they took these little applications back in the day, back at MMG (Multimedia Marketing Group), Derrick Wheeler and I came up with that whole concept of advertising applications, or "adapps", which you would create a fun little game and then link back to the site. You see these little Marketing techniques coming completely full circle. Everybody is utilizing these little tools or these games, to push users back, and more importantly to push links back, so it’s an SEO technique that’s come back again from 1997-98. And you see link development, which was a big thing that MMG sold in the beginning, “We’ll submit your site to the top 100 places on the net,” and now it’s come back as link development- we used to do this back in the day, it was just terrible; it was the worst kind of work ever - it’s arduous at best, and now you come back and you have to do it if you want placement in Google.
MARK: How did you get your start, what were you doing? What got you interested in search engines? Where were you at, and at what point in time did you realize, “Hey this is kind of cool?”
MARSHALL: Well, I’m 36 now. I started this in 1997, and there was just a moment where I read a statistic that said there is something like 25,000 new sites coming on every 3 months, and that was in the hey day, and I thought, “How the hell are people going to find all this?” And then, people weren’t really using search engines at that point, people were using Yahoo!, but it wasn’t a search engine, it was a directory with search components. And it finally just occurred to me, I mean it wasn’t that big of an epiphany, but I just realized just how important search was going to be. So I started researching it and looking at it, and came across Danny Sullivan’s site SearchEngineWatch, and started reading that and reached out to him, and then later developed I-Search, which was that list of professionals. It just talked about search technologies, it talked about search, about directories, and it talked about marketing. All the while I was honing my skills as a search marketer and search specialist, and I worked with a lot of really smart people. We helped optimize a lot of websites. We helped Intel launch their Pentium II Chip, their “Day in the Life” series, the book that came out. We did a lot of work around that. That was when there were 10 different engines, so you never knew which one was going to drive the most traffic.
MARK: How old was Danny’s site when you first got going?
MARSHALL: About a year old.
MARK: How did you meet Danny?
MARSHALL: I searched. I think I was actually in the Yahoo database adding a link to I-Search and came across it. No that’s not true, no it didn’t happen that way at all, but I was actually submitting a site and found his, and I was searching on “search engine optimization” searching on “searches and marketing” and came across his site and just started reading it.
MARK: …and there was this guy writing about everything you’d been thinking about...
MARSHALL: Uh huh…and we invited him to Bend, and he came here in 97 and worked with MMG. I took on the head of search, and started the department at MMG, and became good friends with Danny. We started the list, and it became abundant if you will, and whenever you put yourself on a higher pedestal people consider you an expert, even though I wasn’t at that point, even though I was working towards it, eventually I did become one.
MARK: That’s kind of cool. Who would have known at the time that it was going to turn into what it is today. I found this old note pad from MMG, from the Cascade Conference. And I was asking myself, “Gosh, I can’t remember when that was?” Was that the first search conference? Was there a conference before that one? Who was there? I remember there was a band... We were out at Shevlin Park- Aspen Hall. I couldn’t find the dates on that thing, but I was asking myself, “When were the first Search Engine Strategies?”
MARSHALL: That was the winter of 98. The first Search Engine Strategies I actually spoke at in November of 99.
MARK: So that was a year before the first SES?
MARSHALL: Yeah, and the Cascade Conference was about marketing in particular. We didn’t necessarily talk about search, per say. I wasn’t on a panel or anything.
MARK: Wasn’t there a section on search?
MARSHALL: I don’t think so. If there was, I don’t remember it. It was a fun conference, I remember that.
MARK: I’m just trying to dig up the old or the original agenda. So, that was marketing in general with a section on internet marketing?
MARSHALL: It was all internet marketing. It was just a day, and they had a whole debate about “what is spam”. You could fill a couple hours with that back in the day, and they did. But yeah, I think that MMG was one of the first companies that offered SEO as one of their services. And as a result, so many people from MMG, spun off into becoming search experts. That’s why Bend is really kind of a birth place of search engine marketing and SEO.
MARK: If we explore that for a second, the birth place comment, what are the kinds of things that lead you to that term?
MARSHALL: Well, the first thing is that so many search marketing professionals have come out of Bend from the late 90s. That’s the first reason behind that comment. The second one is, we were one of the very first companies to really integrate into every different component of search, I mean every different part of the marketing campaign, whether it was link development, submissions, copy writing, emotion, advertising applications, all that had a search component; and it was very heavily involved and integrated into the overall campaign, and that was big. Nobody else was really doing that as a major marketing company, I mean, Avenue 80 – they weren’t looking at search, that wasn’t important to them in that day. But we had it heavily integrated and I had a team and everybody I worked with therefore learned the parts and the facets of search, and the search campaign. So, so many people were spun off.
MARK: So, Derrick Wheeler was there...
MARSHALL: Yep. Detlev Johnson, Jeremy Sanchez, Bill Hunt, Dave Gonon - some of the companies that MMG acquired or partnered with through the buyout with Outrider.
MARK: Do you know where Bill Hunt is today?
MARSHALL: Yeah, he started up a… well, Market Leap came from here and there was a development house called Block that a bunch of those guys ….
MARSHALL: Michelle, Keith Boswell, Paul Owen - we had always crossed paths with them because they were doing some development for us. And then they went on to start Market Leap that was bought by Digital Impact that was bought by Axiom. And so, they’re there. And, Bill Hunt has started Global Strategies. Global Strategies was just partially acquired by Ogilvy so, they’re doing all right.
MARK: Just recently?
MARSHALL: Last year (March 2007). So, a lot of people have come out of Bend. GSI, Global Strategies has a big shop here; Market Leap has a big shop here. So, it’s safe to say that we’re the "Mecca" as far as this is concerned just by sheer numbers alone, and history and the lineage.
MARK: When you started doing this here in Bend, besides Danny, who else was out there? Now Danny was over in England at the time too. So what’s good about here on the states side, any competitors, anyone that you were sharing…?
MARSHALL: There were SEO competitors; there were a lot of shops where people would just call themselves SEO specialists or experts. iProspect was one of the very first SEO companies to make it big, meaning that they were bought for millions of dollars, around 50 million dollars, by a huge agency called Carat. This was 2001-ish that they were bought. They were a big big company, in the sense that they had 20 maybe 30 people. So, they were the first ones to really make it.
MARK: So MMG’s sale was after?
MARSHALL: MMG’s sale was in 99, I think it was finalized in December of 99. The first real full SEO company to be bought that I know of was iProspect – the one that really made history.
MARK: But that was a year later?
MARSHALL: Yes, that was in 2000, I believe. But they were an SEO only shop.
MARK: I know the time lines are difficult because it was such a long time ago, but I’m trying to establish that, I am trying to figure out…..
MARSHALL: That’s definitely a point in history that needs to be mentioned - when iProspect was bought out. You can go search and Danny wrote about it of course, but I think it was in 2000. But Marketing companies were being bought and merging all the time in the late 90s and so was MMG, but search wasn’t important then, and then I think that with iProspect I think people got the idea that this was a viable commodity that people want, but there was a lot of consultants who – or small shops that didn’t necessarily have the professionalism that iProspect did, and I think what that showed is that if you can hone your skills and have a little bit of business savvy and expertise, if you can exhibit a little expertise and professionalism, then you can make it and actually have a chance to be acquired and for potentially a lot of money, iProspect showed that. It had to be early 2000.
MARK: Where were they based out of?
MARK: Bruce Clay goes back a long time. He gets kidded about being old as dirt.
MARSHALL: Oh really, he coined the phrase, “Search Engine Optimization,” I don’t know if that’s important or not but he get’s credited with that I guess. Which is fine – good for him. But yeah, he’s been around for a long time too, and he’s expanded into a lot of different fields. He’s a full service agency now. He’s been around.
MARK: I remember his relationship chart, even back then…
MARSHALL: …still around too. It was actually really good, we printed that out and used it to reference quite a bit. It helped keep track of who was working with whom because it was changing every week.
MARK: So that chart showed up for the first time...?
MARSHALL: Yeah, it had to be the late 90s.
MARK: But you didn’t see it before MMG.
MARSHALL: No, I saw it at MMG. Because you were dealing with AltaVista, Infoseek, HotBot, Lycos, WebCrawler, Northern Lights, Google, Ask Jeeves, and Microsoft. So there are 10... I might have missed one, but they were considered the big 10 and that’s who you had to optimize for.
MARK: And Yahoo was the big boy, he was the directory. And then DMOZ…
MARSHALL: Yeah, they came on later, that was in 98. That was part of the link development effort; that was very important though. It’s like this whole thing with Wikipedia, its come full circle too, is that ODP really started the whole volunteer editor approach where you could get significant credentials... So, it really made this whole concept of editorial volunteer popular. You could become popular online just by editing more sites. And you have to ask yourself, “For what,” I don’t know what that popularity was for but that was en vogue at that time. And now Wikipedia is the same thing, you can become popular, online for editing, but there’s no real meaning behind it. I don’t quite get it, but the open directory was an essential stop in the whole marketing train because Google was using it for their taxonomy. That’s why you use the Open Directory, because you would see a direct correlation between placement and Google, and even just acceptance into the Open Directory. That still is important, not as important, and it’s died on the vine – which I resurrected but it’s still important to get in if you have the time and the patience. But that’s interesting full circle. And it was interesting that this time Google essentially, forced Wikipedia to follow all their out-bound links. That was interesting; there was so much negative press around it.
MARK: So let’s go through evolution a little bit – all of a sudden Google comes over, there was this point in time where it was like a three way tie between Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google, maybe 6 years ago, and then that’s all she wrote. From that time Google just took off and Microsoft dove.
MARSHALL: Well and Inktomi was there, they owned HotBot and the Inktomi Engine. They later acquired Northern Lights which was acquired by Yahoo. So they acquired Inktomi also, which owned AltaVista. So Inktomi bought AltaVista, and Fast. They were later acquired by Yahoo!, around 2002. That was a big deal too because you thought they were going to consolidate all this traffic and they were really going to be a big player and it did help but then Google just took off, your right. Because Google had that whole premise that they just kind of knew what you were thinking, and it was uncanny how everyone’s site would just appear – exactly what you were looking for. And those days are gone obviously; you have to dig in quite a bit more. But it worked really well to gain so much market that they were able to really push that angle. The thing about SEO in the meantime, is that there were a lot of little companies springing up all over the place that were doing search that were optimizing your site for you, a lot of them had different approaches but, about.com was the very first company to bring somebody in-house full time, and that was myself. I joined the company in 99. I left MMG in October, spoke at Danny’s first conference at SES in San Francisco in November and joined about.com in December. About.com was an extremely smart company, they still have so many smart people that they are working with. They were prescient in the way that they saw that search was integral to a content network and they saw it early enough, that they brought me in, in 99. So they had enough foresight dealing with the amount of content that they had to optimize it because it was the Wild West and that was their leg up. So I came in and took on full time, working with 850 guides, teaching them how to optimize their content for search.
MARK: How was their infrastructure?
MARSHALL: It was crazy. You could use whatever web development tool you wanted, whatever publishing tool you wanted, you could work with it and just upload it. So, the process of data basing that took us years, after we finally decided to database it. So you could have stuff built on four or five, six different pieces of software, it was crazy, it was absolutely crazy. Essentially, at the core of all of this, was me teaching them about title tags, Meta tags, descriptions, and content, and then doing the design behind the scenes to ensure that certain elements were in place. I always pushed about to operate by the rules and regulations because it was really easy to cheat back then, really REALLY easy. You could subvert a data base so quickly, and a lot of companies were making money doing that. They would eventually get caught, but about.com kept their nose clean and kept working really hard, and the results were staggering. They were the top the top 15 sites at the turn of the century – 2000. They continued to keep the top 20’s ranking for years. And then the Primedia acquisition and now with the New York Times acquisition they’re in the top 10 and have been and will continue to be just because of the diligent work of all the people that are doing the optimization.
MARK: You’ve now all rolled into one content management system for the most part?
MARSHALL: At About? Yes.
MARK: Did you help build that?
MARSHALL: Well, I helped optimize it. I helped the strategy behind it, but I didn’t build it. We’ve got a lot of really good developers that did all the tools.
MARK: Like if they had a search question, they would go to you?
MARSHALL: Oh yeah, still. I’m just overseeing a lot more now at The Times and About.com.
MARK: But your paycheck now comes from New York Times? When they bought About.
MARSHALL: Yes in 2005. Primedia bought About in 2001, and then basically I was rolled out to all their other magazine properties, like Motor Trends, American Baby, Seventeen, and all these other companies that needed what we did for About. And of course they succeeded very well with that. So, that was a good acquisition. It wasn’t good for About; it was good for Primedia I felt. I come back to the fact that About in 1999 had the foresight to create a full time position for somebody to come in and do search and apply the fundamentals from the very beginning in-house, from the bottom up, and not be reactive to whatever content was produced, like a marketing company had to do – they had to come in and rework the pages. We built the pages right out of the gate. We optimized them; that was ground breaking. So they were one of the first companies to do that, and quietly took all the credit in the form of a ton of traffic from all of the search engines because it was taking their content and positioning it in a way.
MARK: And by having those guides, you’re getting some form of quality control.
MARSHALL: That’s exactly right.
MARK: And that really helped a lot. It’s still credible today I think because of those guides.
MARSHALL: Yeah, and it’s the same way when you’re working in publishing, if you’ve got editors and producers overseeing the content and doing the optimization, it checks itself like you said. It’s a QA process from an optimization stand point then nothing is happening, and then you just get control of the technical side of things and you don’t have to worry about it. In the meantime, there were a lot of marketing companies in 2000 that would have to go back and rework all this content and that’s just impossible, you can’t. They had to look at where the main entry points were, what articles that should be performing were under performing, and go back and rework the HTML, and that’s just a terrible process. A lot of companies still do that, and I don’t know how, because you can’t. New York Times produces 1500 documents a week, you physically can’t go over that and rewrite the HTML, and optimize those; you have to have people on the ground doing it. So, I don’t know how you can do that. You can put automation in the tools, but in 2000 the tools weren’t there yet. I would argue that they’re still not. There are a lot of tools for analysis, but not for optimization.
MARK: If someone was going to build a CMS system to help do exactly what you’re talking about – creating content from the beginning with search in mind, what kinds of things would you have them make sure they did right?
MARSHALL: You have to use style sheets whenever possible to resize some of the elements of it a little bit, like H1 Tag, H2 Tags, and strong and bold tags. You have to make sure that the tool doesn’t publish content unless you have a title tag – title tag is populated. You can’t auto populate those either, you can auto populate Meta key words and descriptions, but not title tags; I think they are way too important. There are a lot of things. You just have to make sure that basic SEO fundamentals are in place.
MARK: Ok, so if that same system could, on an ongoing ownership standpoint, or reporting, or maintenance reports, what kinds of things would you want to see or do you already get out of your current system?
MARSHALL: Oh, the only numbers I’m concerned about are referrers from search. Each system is different, Omniture calls them Natural Search Referrers, WebTrends calls them something different... but ultimately it’s just how many people came from the search engines? How many clicks did you get from the search engines?
MARK: And what were they typing maybe?
MARSHALL: Sometimes, I don’t necessarily care about ranking because you can optimize for a fairly esoteric key word and drive a ton of traffic, and at the same time you can optimize for something very general, like flowers, and not get any traffic. I don’t care about the ranking, what I care about is making sure that whatever that piece of content is about is optimized accordingly for. And that you’ve done some research, because you have to know that people don’t search on the term National Football League, they search for NFL. It’s very important to differentiate it. And that’s the information that you have to convey to the editors and producers that are optimizing your content. So, that’s why you can “never” - and I say never with finger quotes – it’s very difficult to automate a title tag. You have to have an editorial process in place.
MARK: So, now we’re in current day, 1500 documents a week, just for the New York Times, a whole bunch of magazines, About is still going strong. That seems like it keeps a guy busy.
MARSHALL: Well, and on top of that we’ve got archives. We have 22 million pieces of data in our archives that’s not optimized.
MARK: Don’t you want to file that away behind an HTTPS browser somewhere?
MARSHALL: We just opened that up. Yeah, that would be nice. We finally sold to Times that you could sell advertising against that and make more money than subscriptions.
MARK: And they are finally on board.
MARSHALL: Yeah, they did it last year. Last September they opened it up.
MARK: That must be an entire wave of work.
MARSHALL: YES. It means a wave of work that is ongoing, that will probably be ongoing forever.
MARK: How big is the team that is working on that thing?
MARK: A team of two?
MARSHALL: Yes, myself and one other person. We have a decent tech team that is helping us out.
MARK: Are you happy?
MARK: You love it?
MARSHALL: Yeah. On top of that I’m doing a lot of consulting too, so it keeps me extremely busy. We’re working with all the major publishers in New York City and helping them out in addition to the work we’re doing with the Times, and with About, cause then it comes as the Boston Globe as well, and the International Harold Tribune. So, yeah, we’re busy – to say the least. I have a small team of five consultants that helps with the…
MARK: I met with the guy who just got assigned the job, the equivalent of “director of search at New York Times,” but he works for the Chicago Tribune. No search experience.
MARK: I just said, “Good luck sir.” He said, “I’ve got to do something about the New York Times,” and I said, “Well good luck with that. The guy who’s taking care of that for them has been at it for a very long time, and you’ve got a (hard) road in front of you.”
MARSHALL: Yeah, if anything, you should set aside some of Washington Posts. Cause they’re doing a good job too. But, yeah, obviously Times are at the top. But he should set his sights a little bit lower. Ha-ha. Good publishers only have to do a few little things right because the content is so good. They can just tell the search engine what that content is about and you have a leg up. It’s so well written and it’s editorialized, and you just trust it, and they should. It’s qualified content. Its fact checked for the most part, and yeah.
MARK: So, if somebody was first starting out, they show up and their boss says, “Hey I’ve heard about this search engine thing, you need to go learn about it,” and they’re starting from square one. What would you recommend they do?
MARSHALL: You go to SearchEngineLand.com and you start reading, and then you go to WebMasterWorld.com and you start reading, and then go to SEOmoz.com, and start reading. You just hit all those sites, and you monitor them on a regular basis. When you’re ready for advanced techniques you step up and you start reading about linking and development behind that. And you learn about how to work with page rank. And you always keep yourself apprised of the webmaster guidelines that all the engines put out. You read their blogs. You learn about new advancements, you learn XML maps, you learn about the technology behind it. You don’t necessarily have to know how search engines work, but you have to know how they look at content - lots of reading.
MARK: I was just looking at a quick comparison between say a Search Engine Strategies San Jose VS SMX West, and just in no time at all SMX West has as big Alexa Traffic as SES. It’s like the whole industry knew all at once, “oh, we need to go over here now.” I think long term, SES is going to be ok….
MARSHALL: Loosing Danny was a big deal…
MARK: Who’s their market and what can they do to keep a hold of it?
MARSHALL: The first thing they need to do is get rid of that whole Chicago share. That’s the worst, but New York and Santa Clara (Jose) are important shows to have, and to continue to have, because so many people go. We tell all of our clients to go because you can always pick up a nugget or two.
MARK: You go to New York?
MARSHALL: Yeah. I’ve spoken at every Search Engine Strategies with the exception of two Chicago trips. I just don’t want to go to Chicago in the summer, so I won’t. But I’ve spoken at every other SES, and I plan to keep speaking at them. I’m speaking at SMX in March in Santa Clara and then I’ll speak at the one in New York. So I mean, I’ll continue to do that. That’s a lot of fun. I think those are good for a number of reasons: you have to network, you have to get out there, and then just like the life of Bryan, if you’re higher than other people, they think you are an expert. So if you’re on a panel, you’re an expert. That’s why I do it. I don’t need that much exposure to be honest. New York Times and About.com are a pretty good advertisement of what I do. I didn’t realize this but I’ll be speaking at the Portland Search Marketing Expo or something like that…
MARK: Search Fest.
MARSHALL: Uh huh. I got volunteered for that and I didn’t realize it was happening, so I’m going to that.
MARK: I like those guys up there, it’s a nice group.
MARSHALL: Yep. They kind of told me I was coming up there, so...
MARK: They didn’t ask you they just informed you?
MARSHALL: No. So I can appreciate, because like my mom would say, “You’re going to Grandma’s house and you’re going to like it,” you know, that kind of thing. So, they figure if they have somebody with the experience that I have, working on the caliber of sites that I’m working on, I better come give back to the community I guess. So I’m going.
MARK: That seems fair.
MARK: We’re thinking about sponsoring that event.
MARSHALL: Yeah, well I have to figure out what the heck I’m talking about.
MARK: So, what’s some of the worst nightmare stumbling blocks you’ve seen out of a "fancy shmancy" CMS package?
MARSHALL: Well, the worst CMS I’ve ever seen, EVER… And I would love to say it to their face… it’s the most god awful content management system ever, because what it does is it takes the content and it spits it out in a format that is literally unreadable by search engines, and they know this. And if you go to them after it’s done and say, “Hey the engines can’t read any of this,” they’ll say, “Oh, well we also have our search engine friendly package that we can sell you if you are interested in that.” And it’s just a real bad baton switch. I mean it’s malicious. I mean you’ll get like 30 – 40 different dynamic characters in this URL, and it’s this tracking system that doesn’t even make sense. You’ll get multiple URLs you know where you come from the website, and the rendering of the pages is atrocious.
MARK: Unless you buy this add-on?
MARSHALL: Unless you buy the add-on. So we’ve had to consult with a couple companies where we’re cleaning that up. It’s terrible. That’s the worst.
MARK: I’ve heard of those guys. I’ve never worked with them, but I’ve heard of them. Where are you on Word Press? You know, some people are using Word Press for sites.
MARSHALL: We helped talk to them about search engine friendliness and design. So we helped customize what About wanted, because About moved to word press and they use that on all of their home pages, so we figured that if we’re going to use that tool we needed it to do what we wanted it to do. So, they listened and they did it. I dare say that some of those things obligated out. Yeah, I like Word Press.
MARK: What do you do when someone has some kind of database interactive piece that’s supposed to sit behind a page? A calendar is a good example or a searchable list of names… any kind of interactive module where flat HTML is just not going to cut it, and there is no existing module to just plug in and run with it.
MARSHALL: I think that there are ways around it. I mean, ultimately, if you have flash it’s not going to be indexed. If you’re using Ajax, it’s not going to be indexed. There’re work-arounds, and you have to utilize them or there’s no point. So, for the time being until the engines catch up, you’re going to have to use text, it’s just ultimately what you have to use. If search is the primary function of navigation to that page, you are going to have to utilize work-arounds for some of those advanced technologies.
MARK: So if we fast forward five years and then look back… can you foresee anything coming up that’s going to be a significant mile marker in the world of SEO?
MARSHALL: Since 97 I’ve been saying that this will probably be the last year of search. You know, this could all be gone next year. I tell my wife that every year, this could all be over; there could be a search killer somewhere.
MARK: What do you mean by that?
MARSHALL: Meaning that search engine optimization is no longer needed at some point, because technology has gotten so good that it’s able to extract the data that you can classify a document effectively. We have yet to do that. There might be some technology out there that renders SEO completely useless, but I’ve been saying that for a long time. Technology hasn’t caught up. My boss and I were just talking about this on Friday that we were just so surprised, we are amazed that SEO still continues to be as powerful as it is, as necessary I should say. But I’m just trying to be humble about the industry and realize that yes, it could come to an end some day. It could be three years, it could be five years, but ultimately you’re still going to need education, you’re always going to need to educate journalists, writers, editors, producers, you’re going to need to educate these people on how to write content for search engines. Whether they know it or not, because the engines are not going to be able to… I mean we still see that they don’t do a very good job of determining what a piece of content is about. They just don’t.
MARK: Yeah. I tell people, “hey Google is really smart, but their spiders aren’t”
MARSHALL: That’s right, I would agree exactly.