Last week, marketing thought leader Andy Betts chatted with Danny Sullivan, founder of Search Engine Land, Third Door Media and the SMX conference events. Danny recently received a lifetime achievement award at the Bend WebCAM conference--a well-deserved award to one of the true pioneers in technology, digital and search journalism. What ensued was quite an insightful discussion. Enjoy!
Andy: First of all, I want to thank you, Danny, for giving me the opportunity to hear your thoughts on search, social and content, and how what happened in 2012 will impact what we do in 2013.
2012 Redux – Panda & Penguin Are Not Designed To Hurt
Andy: I’ll start with the obligatory question. Obviously, 2012 has been the year of Panda and Penguin - do you think these changes have had a negative impact, as some people suggest, and does it favor big brands?
Danny: I think that it’s favored some people to the degree that it’s hurt other people. For every time you have somebody who drops in rank, there’s somebody else who benefits, and the people who benefit never say anything to the people who run around and say, “The world is falling. No one gets to make it any longer.” That’s not true. In particular, you have people who want to say that small businesses are being completely slammed by this and wiped out, but I think they don’t really understand what a small business is. For some of them a small business means, “I found a way to create a website to make money by being entirely on the internet and getting traffic from Google,” versus “I actually have a business that sells products and services, that I don’t just resell for other people, and I have a business that would survive or thrive if Google didn’t exist.” And those small businesses are the bulk of the small businesses that are out there. If they are really being harmed by these Google changes, you would see outcry coming from politicians about this. Their constituents would be hearing about Google wiping these sorts of players off the board. So, I don’t really buy into this claim that the small businesses are being wiped out. In fact, it’s the same kind of thing you used to hear back in 2003 when we had Florida. - “Google is wiping out the small businesses. The level playing field is gone. You’re never going to be able to make it.” How did it manage that we got through Florida to the degree that we could have all those small businesses be around in order so that they could be wiped out over a decade later?
Andy: That’s a great point.. There was a big outcry after Florida, which people tend to forget as they move to the next ‘challenge’, and I would almost say that a general reaction to Panda and Penguin has happened. The reality is that it has affected different people and different businesses in different ways. What is your take on this?
Danny: To say that Panda and Penguin doesn’t affect big brands is not true. Demand Media took a huge slam off of Panda. About.com ended up getting sold, probably sold at a discount, because of the amount of traffic they lost off of Panda - About.com was owned by the New York Times, which is a big brand and a big trusted brand. It’s not as simple as people want to make it out to be. I will say that Google and Bing, and search engines, in general, want to reward good brands. They want to reward good brands that are large and small, and they want to reward things that are going to give people a good experience. If people leave their search results and end up with a bad experience, they blame the search engine, not the destination site that they ended up on.
2013 – More Of The Same & Different
Andy: That leads us to my next question. In Google’s pursuit of better quality, better content and better relevancy, what do you think they’re going to do in 2013, or what should they do next? Are we going to be looking out for a new update? What would it be called or what would it be focused on?
Danny: I expect that 2013 will be more of the same - more updates designed to patch up all the problems that they have with the existing system that relies largely on analyzing links. What I think they need to do is fully make use of the social data and consider that as being the heart of what they’re going to use going forward. They have issues. They don’t feel like the social data is doing what they would like from it. They say it’s too early. You could have made the same two arguments about links, but you kept trying to use the links, and I think that the social data may give them more information than links do. What I do know is that the link data has become increasingly creaky.
Andy: The relationship between social and search, and how you produce quality content, seems to have changed the role of SEO marketers and it’s essential that marketers dig deeper into search and social data to understand its relationship. I almost think that many people have seen Google updates and looked at the negative impacts, but really there’s this whole new opportunity when you start to look at the data points and the convergence of search content and social media. It’s no coincidence that we have seen a division of terms of how people at big brands do enterprise SEO compared to how they look at SEO for small and medium size companies. Any thoughts on this?
Danny: I don’t know if that’s a new change. You’ve always had these kinds of divisions and, in fact, one of the dangers is that people who do SEO for a certain kind of business assume that everything they do makes sense for any kind of business. If you’re used to doing SEO for a small company, you may have to learn different tactics and understand different needs that a big company has. If you go in from one single website to a company that may run multiple websites in multiple languages, you need a different skill set that’s involved there as well as an ability to push out and make all sorts of changes. The big SEO isn’t necessarily less nimble or as smart as the small SEO, and vice versa. They’re just dealing with a different environment. If you’re dealing with a big brand, you have real reasons to strongly consider whether or not you wan’t get into risky behavior, because that’s going to have a PR blowback on you if someone at the New York Times decides that “Hey, there’s this interesting search story that I should be writing about as it happens”. If you are selling actual products that get shipped and get moved out, you’re in a different range of needs and things that you have to do, and then it’s just about driving traffic to your website.
Andy: Great point Danny. One of the things which isn’t necessarily new is obviously the growth of in-house SEO, whether that’s a big brand or a small brand. When you’re looking at the growth of in-house versus using a contractor or an independent agency, how do you think the career dynamics change there? Do you think SEOers need to look at how they work with agencies and with direct brands, or do you think that they need to rebrand as content marketers, as some people are doing?
Danny: I think that really depends on the individual. I think that there’s a lot to do just with SEO. Depending on what you’re doing, you can have a full time job just dealing with tactical on page technical SEO alone. Certainly though, SEO is enhanced when you are working with a content creation team and you’re working with a social marketing team. If you’re doing some of that, and working it all in together as well, I think it will make for a better success with your SEO. One person is probably going to find it a struggle to turn themselves into being a content marketer because they’re doing the SEO, they’re running the blog post, they’re doing the social media promotion and they find they’re doing five different jobs. I think it really is going to depend on the job that you have at hand, and the amount of time that you have involved, to decide whether or not you can actually do all those things. If you can’t, the bigger questions are whether you are aware that these other things need to be part of the SEO process, and how do you work with others to make that happen?
More Search & Social
Andy: One of the things that people ask me in my role is about this relationship between search and social, and a lot of people talk on a very tactical level about Likes, Tweets and close ones. Do you think this is going to be more of a broader agenda going into 2013 and are people going to start to look at it as more a strategic consideration rather than “Let’s just react and see how we can link search and social together”? When Google launched Google Plus many (at Google) said it was going to be the be all and end all, and the future was all about social signals. If you recall, we had a chat about this in the summer. What do you think is going to happen in 2013?
Danny: In terms of people saying we should do more search and social stuff?
Andy: Yes – and how do you think Google is going to look at Google Plus in 2013? When we talk about influence and social, do you think the new ranking factor is going to be focused around looking at social signals?
Danny: I think the social signal is going to continue to grow. I don’t know that we’re going to a tipping point in 2013. I think Google and Bing have been very cagey and hesitant to use those social signals, although they’re tapping into them more and more. I think then, that anybody who cares about ranking well on Google absolutely needs to be using Google Plus. It’s so integrated with everything that they’re doing, and we can see that it can have some direct relations now as well. It’s stunning to me that people still don’t do that, and I think the people who are doing it now are going to be well ahead of others.
Andy: Yeah – I do see some people adopting and looking at the influence of social signals and they can come back with some pretty compelling evidence that is a big influence. That seems to me to be a big part of SEO programs now-- looking at the influence of social signals and developing content plans. It’s not just technical and it’s not just link building. How do you think the social graph compares to the way the link graph grew over the last ten years? Is it growing as rapidly? Is it something that you think needs more attention?
Danny: I think we probably have more extensive social graph at this point than we have of link graph. It does need more attention and the search engines don’t seem to be tapping into it anywhere near to the degree that they could.
Introducing SMX Social; SMX Content too?
Andy: One other thing I wanted to speak to you about was the launch of SMX Social in Las Vegas on the 6th of December. Bearing in mind we have just been talking about social and the social graph, could you tell us a little bit more about the show? Was it built to reflect the need of the audience, and do you feel that’s the way the market is heading?
Danny: We’ve done SMX Search shows for a very long time, and we’ve actually started doing a social media show as well, because we wanted to be able to explore social media without having to be tied completely into search. The regular SMX shows are really very search-centric. Everything needs to be about search because there’s a lot to explore, but people do want to know about some of these developments that are going on in social as well. The idea behind doing the social media marketing show is that people can stretch out, and explore, and understand more about how to do better on the social media promotion front without necessarily having to link all that back into search, and there’s plenty to explore there.
Andy: Is that something that you’re going to launch into other countries as well and launch over in Europe?
Danny: Potentially we could. We tend to work with partners in other countries. Right now, where we have SMX shows, social is always a big part of the discussion.
Andy: And do you actually think at some stage we’ll see an ‘SMX Content’ in the near future conference?
Danny: Possibly. We look at the different areas. The Marketing Land site covers all sorts of things like content marketing, and so it’s possible to do that kind of show as well if it makes sense for us to do it—if there’s an audience that’s interested in it.
Andy: I suppose the challenge is addressing the different audience profiles and producing content around the overlap between specific search knowledge, social integration and then content integration.
Danny: We attract different audiences. The people who come up to the SMX East Show and the SMX West Show are largely geographically different. It’s not the same person who says, “Well, which show should I go to?” We do two shows in two different places because there are groups of people who want to go to one place or the other. With social media marketing, we have maybe some overlap of people who go to a regular SMX Show, but then you have a whole new audience that’s saying, “Oh, I want to learn about social media marketing,” and might not have been to one of the search shows because they need to be more social media marketers than search marketers.
Do This, Not That In 2013
Andy: Just before we wrap up, Danny, one of the things that I think people would really like to hear is - out of all the changes we’ve seen in 2012, what do you think has been the biggest change that people need to focus on and adapt to in 2013?
Danny: If you’re a search marketer, I would be sure that you are staying very aligned with social media marketing efforts. I think that’s very, very important. I couldn’t say enough about that. I think you should also be paying attention to the semantic developments that are going on in authorship, the rich snippet stuff that’s available.
Andy: I totally agree. I also think that as SEO marketers focus on quality content, we may also see more on page content optimization as well. I think it’s going to be an interesting year in 2013, in terms of how people adapt to integrate their SEO efforts. Is there anything we’re missing? We talked about updates under Penguin, and Panda, influence, authorship, local, social, and mobile. Is there anything that you think, maybe off the radar, any curve balls out there that we need to keep an eye on for 2013?
Danny: I think that's the gist of it really.
Danny: The only other thing that I would add is that people really need to pay attention to what’s going on in mobile. People are continuing to use their mobile devices to find content and I think the key is not about ‘what’s the right mobile SEO I need to do’. Instead, it’s about what’s happening when they get to your site and is your site going to be friendly to them in a mobile situation.
Andy: For sure - everyone talks about the year of mobile. I’m excited to see how local and mobile develop next year. I think there’s so much that’s going to be driven by mobile over the next two or three years.
Danny Sullivan – Reader, Write, Journalist, Wannabe-teacher
Andy: I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. Now, let’s get personal as I know readers would love some general insight from you. Obviously you write a lot, which probably means you read a lot. So, I’m wondering if there’s anything that you could share about what you’ve learned from other industries outside of this industry-whether it’s authors or even a fiction novel. Could you recommend a book to read that has influenced you in the market, but not a book about our industry?
Danny: I don’t do a lot of nonfiction reading. When I’m done for the day, I want to just relax. I read a lot of science fiction. I don’t have a good book to recommend to people. I would suggest that anybody who wants to understand more about Google, read the trilogy of The Search by John Battelle. Read Googled by Ken Auletta and then also read Steven Levy’s In the Plex. I think those are all essential readings for people who want to understand Google more and search.
Andy: So - you write, you research, you report, you organize events, you speak—that’s a lot to do. How do you manage all this time? Is there any advice you can give to people that are bandwidth strapped? How can they mirror some of the things that you do in the success that you’ve had?
Danny: I’m fortunate that I have a great team of people I work with. So, find good people and trust in them to do their jobs--that’s one good thing. And part of that also means learning to let go. There are stories I want to write that I realize that I can’t write. I’d like to have time to write it, and other people will do just as well. I don’t try to let email dominate my life. I try to deal with each email message I get when I read it rather than letting it build up. If you can answer it, you answer and if you can’t, you delete and move on. I’m very organized, I guess, and try to prioritize things. It also helps that I write fast.
Andy: You do write fast. Finally. if you weren’t in search and journalism, where do you think you would be? Would you be a NASCAR racer or would you be an astronaut?
Danny: I might be a teacher. Yeah, possibly a teacher. I’d like to say I want to be an author, but I don’t know if I have the creativity.
Andy: I’m sure you would. That’s it, Danny – thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it!
About Danny Sullivan
About Andy Betts
Andy Betts has 12 years marketing, digital media and search marketing based experience working with many of the industry’s leading agencies and brands working across key strategic and marketing growth functions. Andy has been part of some the industries largest acquisitions such as Latitude (5years) £50m - DoubleClick Performics (2 years) $3.1bn - Google - Publicis/Vivaki Andy has worked at VP/Director level with brands such as - Google, MSN, Apple, HP, HSBC, United Airlines, Lexis Nexis, Saxo Bank, Motorola, American Express, Fidelity and Fidelity International. Andy also consults for start-ups on marketing and digital strategy whilst writing for many of the industries leading publications. You can reach Andy on Twitter as @andybetts1 and on LinkedIn.