Lee Odden

Interview: Mike Grehan, World Traveler & Global SEO

Spotlight on Search: Interview with Mike Grehan

Photo credit: webmoxy

One of the most popular categories of content we publish at Online Marketing Blog is the interviews. Recently, we ran a poll asking OMB readers for suggestions on people we should interview in anticipation of SES San Jose. There were some great suggestions and I’ve just started contacting a few folks as well as their mega company PR depts for pre-approval.

A book author, popular columnist at ClickZ, sought after public speaker and man about town, Mike recently joined the Bruce Clay organization as VP International Business Development and even more recently, was named the chairperson for the 2008 Search Engine Strategies conference in London.

In this interview, Mike talks about his ability to create a bit of controversy by voicing his mind, suggestions for webmaster/search engine communications, the SEO public image problem, why he joined Bruce Clay, the need for “new wisdom” in the SEO industry, his thoughts on the likes of Facebook (ouch!) and world travels.

Thank you for agreeing to do an interview Mike. Normally our interviews start with trite questions like “how did you get into the business” but let’s start with the good stuff first:

Just about everyone in the search marketing business would agree that things change fairly often in the industry. So the notion of certain tactics phasing out seems a natural part of the industry’s evolution. Why do you think so many SEOs get their shorts in a bundle whenever anyone, including yourself, publishes “SEO as we know it is dead” opinions?

This is still a rising medium with a long way to go. An emerging industry with, seemingly, a lot of people who can’t deal very well with change. Just when they’ve set their stall up to sell one thing, the search engines get a little more clever with information retrieval techniques and then their optimization methods become less effective. But because they’ve invested time (and money, probably) into developing a system that seems plausible, they’ll carry on selling it. And if that’s the case, the last thing they want to hear is someone like me saying in public that we’ve moved on a tad since SEO circa 1999.

Just look at how Google can force us overnight to change strategy, tactics, in fact our entire approach in some cases. In the first instance, they phased us out of being completely focused on on-page techniques because the optimization power shifted into links. Once they went public with that Stanford paper the industry went wild with PageRank mania. And there are still those in the industry who want to hang on to all the green fairy dust myths and hype. And recently, Google changed the rules again by throwing universal search into the mix. Bingo! The entire industry has to move up another notch. There’s no point hanging on to the past and former glories now.

I write an opinion column at ClickZ. And I feel that I’ve been around long enough in the business to provide fairly well informed comment. I get extremely positive feedback from the audience of online marketers I write for. But sometimes, from the pimply geek squad, if I dare to suggest that SEO as we know it just ain’t cutting it like it used to…Bang! It’s that heretic Grehan again. And out come the cries to have me dragged into Times Square for a public flogging.

There’s a bunch of people out there who come at the industry from more a of a technical/webmaster background and begin to feel a little alienated when industry pundits and observers start talking more about online marketing strategy and less about tags and server issues. You know, I get completely dumbfounded at conferences sometimes when webmasters ask me things like: “Can Google read my CSS?” I’m like, who gives a shit? Shouldn’t you be more concerned about finding ways to get end users to interact with your web pages, rather than losing sleep over whether a bot can read a little bit of your gobbledygook.

I agree with my colleague, Bruce Clay that, best practice is just that. So if you can make pages the best they can be for crawling and indexing, we should carry on doing that. Keep the fundamentals in place. But just getting pages crawled and indexed doesn’t do a great deal for a client if he’s not ranking for anything. It’s like taking a bunch of pages from one black hole and placing them in another.

Crawlers are getting smarter. CMS systems are getting smarter. Google provides analytics and communication via Webmaster Central, so marketers are getting smarter. And with an industry protocol such as sitemaps.org, the crawling and indexing issues of the past are gradually becoming less of a concern.

What people in the industry should really concern themselves with is trying to get a better understanding of the types of heuristics being used in Google’s universal search. What is it they are doing to match URLs with video clips, podcasts, local results, news results, stock quotes, blogs and everything else? There’s more to understanding that to enhance listings and force the competitor below the fold than there is to wasting time wondering if H tags get you ranked better.

Sure, there are people in the industry already bleating about universal results not being as good or relevant. Some hoping that Google (and Ask) may go back to good old fashioned HTML pages in a nice little row of ten blue links. But it’s end users who are demanding a much richer experience. Just think about the interaction going on at FaceBook. Each day a new utility or feature is introduced. Millions of people are having a totally multimedia experience. And once the end user gets used to this richer and more engaging experience, they’ll expect similar everywhere they go online. Search engines included!

So unbundle your shorts guys and deal with it!

What’s your biggest complaint about the search engines right now? What have they done right and what could be better in terms of webmaster/marketer communications and support? Do you think the engines have any real responsibility to non-advertising web site owners and SEOs?

I had this idea that, we should start a campaign in the industry where we spread the word to every known webmaster in the world to put a robots.txt file in their root and prevent all search engines from crawling their sites for about three months. Imagine how really crappy the results would be over at Google and elsewhere if they had no fresh content. And then, every webmaster in the world drops a note to Google telling them that, for the sum of x dollars (place your own figure there readers) you’ll be happy to remove the file and allow them to start crawling again.

Yeah, I know. We’d probably all go bust. But in principle it’s a good idea. At least that way everyone would be feeling a little more responsible to each other. If the entire SEO industry slipped off a cliff tomorrow, would you see executives from search engines crying in public? I doubt it. If companies involved purely in search advertising (PPC) all fell off a cliff, would you see executives at search engines crying in public. Probably not. The whole PPC thing has been set up to be self service anyway. And none of the search network owners think twice about going direct to your clients once they’ve reached a certain spend.

I think we’ve moved a long way from the bad old, them and us arms race days. There’s certainly a whole lot more interaction between search engines and the SEO/SEM community. These days, you’re literally falling over search engine guys at major industry conferences such as SES, SMX, PubCon and ad:tech. There are the official search engine blogs. And the unofficial, such as Matt Cutts’ hugely popular blog.

So yes, there’s a lot more communication and a little more (stress, little) transparency. Back in the day we were always asking if search engines could give us some kind of weather report about changes and updates. More recently we’ve been getting those kinds of alerts relating to changes and spam penalties, that sort of thing. And that’s great. But (and this is a hugely important but), with something that has such a major impact on the industry like the roll out of universal search, you’d think someone may have wanted to throw the notion of universal search into the communications pot before we all just had to wake up one day and deal with it.

I think there are going to be a number of major changes in the way we see results at search engines. And as the search engines make changes we’ll have to evolve with them. As a marketer I’m very excited about search moving forward into this rich new experience look and feel. And as a marketer with a certain depth of knowledge about a particular medium, I should always be able to help my clients. I don’t see much of a change in the vendor/client relationship in the marketing environment.

It’s entirely possible that we’ll see the listings switched around to give more priority to paid listings in the universal search age. It could be something as simple as switch from right to left for the paid listings. Or it could be much more adventurous than that. I think before something as dramatic as that occurs, search engines do really have responsibility to provide the long term weather forecast.

The search marketing industry seems to go up and down in terms of perceptions. Is this industry really characterized by “worthless shady criminals” or are there really that many clueless mainstream media journalists?

M: With respect to the mainstream marketing media, and also to the conventional marketing and advertising agencies, there still seems to be very little true understanding about SEO. I’ve been in a number of meetings with well established advertising agencies where an account director will try and explain to the team why I’m there and what SEO is. I’m sometimes left there thinking “that is so *not* what SEO is or what I do!”

So if you start at a level where many marketers are hugely uninformed about search (in particular, SEO) then there are always going to be those anomalies, where on the one hand we’re viewed as a bunch of algorithm botherers. And on the other hand a bunch of fakers getting paid “money for old rope.”

The entry level into SEO is not very high. Just spend a grand on some tools such as rank checkers, back link checkers, keyword density analyzers etc. And even if you’ve only been in the business for five minutes, start throwing those terms around in front of an uninformed client, then tell him you’re an SEO Guru. He’ll believe you.

Sometimes the industry gives itself a black eye and that seems to get more mainstream press. The BMW incident is a classic case, for instance. And then there are the purveyors of pure poop in the industry. People talking to clients and telling them their web sites should be LSI compliant, or whatever the latest industry buzz is. Some clients buy into the FUD, they get no results and then brand the entire industry as being nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

However, all the more, as search begins to creep its way as a line item up the marketing shopping list, a higher degree of understanding and awareness should follow with it.

You’ve led organizations, worked as a consultant and for other companies. In fact, you’ve recently joined the Bruce Clay organization (congrats!) as VP of International Business Development. I am curious why you would work for a company and not stay as a consultant?

The main reason I joined Bruce Clay is that, I can’t afford clothes. And when you join Bruce Clay, Inc., you get loads of free shirts!

Seriously, I’m very much a consultant at heart. But when I started my new brand at the beginning of this year, I started looking around for freelancers and subcontractors to work with me on specific accounts. It was then that I realized just how much of a skills shortage there is in the industry.

In particular, trying to find people who have had big site SEO experience (sites with more than a million pages) and also those who can work internationally and deal with cultural differences as well as everything else.

So, I’ve always had this hankering to do something beyond just the workshops, seminars and conferences I do. Some time, back in the seventies it seems like, when the first edition of my book came out, I registered search-engine-academy.com and had every intention of starting an SEO course. I even hooked up with my local university, where I still have strong connections and they were extremely keen to get something off the ground. But, as with a lot of good intentions I’ve had over the years, it’s still there on the back-burner.

Of course, Bruce has a well developed and successful certification course in SEO. He also has the tools. Not only that, Bruce has one of the few search marketing firms to be setting up a truly international presence. And international business is an area I specialize in. Plus, Bruce and I have known each other for a century or two and have talked from time-to-time about doing something together. Seemed like the timing was right. So when Bruce invited me on board a few months back, all the pieces seemed to fit.

You’ve written some excellent content of which “Filthly Linking Rich” is one of my favorites as well as a famous book about Search Marketing. There are many that say books about SEO can get outdated pretty quickly, so I’m curious if you feel your book is still relevant? All of it or parts?

I wrote the book because I was fed up with buying other books and eBooks on and offline which had a section called “How search engines work” and yet none of them really explained it at all. They all did the same thing and covered crawler activity. But none of them addressed true information retrieval (IR) techniques and the science behind it for indexing and ranking. Even now, with some of the more recent publications I’ve seen, the same thing applies.

Mine was never written as a “tips and tricks” thing as many eBooks are. It was more about the application of marketing communications to information retrieval on the web. And to that end, I haven’t seen anything else as in-depth. So, I think the section on how search engines work is still very relevant. Also, if you read the interviews I did with both search engine researchers and engineers as well as practitioners, the information is just as good today as it was then if it’s best practice you’re interested in.

Even as it currently is it still sells well. But there is an updated version due soon. And I’m well into the structure and content of the third edition. I’m not dashing any further into the third edition until I have my head around universal search though. And some of the other new changes we’ll be seeing in the immediate future.

I’m actually writing another white paper along the lines of “Filthy Linking Rich” called “Outside In” which is about heuristics and signals that search engines may be using for this new universal approach.

As a bit of a late bloomer to the blogging game with mikegrehan.com, do you think it was worth the wait? Has your blog been an effective tool for promoting the brand of Mike or do you consider it to be more of a personal blog? What blogs do you read and how often?

I didn’t bother with a blog for a long time because there were so many industry related blogs sprouting up all over the place. There was no point in me starting another one. The reason I did start a blog (other than the fact that everyone on the planet had one by then) was because of my mom.

She’s in her seventies and doesn’t travel very much these days. But she takes a real interest in my job (although she still doesn’t really know what I do, “It’s something to do with Google” she tells people) and she loves to hear about where I’ve been and who I’ve met. So I started the blog for her, mainly. Of course, my kids and the rest of the family as well as close friends all take a peek at it. But you could have knocked me over with a feather when my son showed me the traffic stats for it. Considering it’s just a blog about a little, fat, old English bloke getting pissed all over the planet, it has a huge international audience.

I’m often asked about writing a business blog. But there’s no point with “The Lisa” blogging over at Bruce’s place and me writing my ClickZ column. As for which blogs I read myself, if I’m honest (and I am) I don’t subscribe to, or read any unless someone sends me a link to something interesting.

The column you write for ClickZ is a must read in my opinion. You consistently succeed at provoking thought about the search marketing business that not everyone wants to hear. The great thing is that you don’t do it in a “I’m a bearded wombat and SEO isn’t rocket science” sort of way, but with more of a diplomatic “been there done that” style. Is this by design or are you a naturally provocative writer?

We haven’t had much time to hang together, Lee. But one thing that people in the industry do tell me after they’ve had their fourth Sauvignon Blanc with me is, “you write as you speak.” And that’s it.

I’m a practitioner first and foremost. So I air my thoughts and feelings about the industry in just the same way as I would if were standing at the bar having a beer. I don’t write to be provocative or controversial or anything else. Just to honestly voice my opinion.

Sure, as mentioned earlier, some people tend to take what I say personally and then launch these ridiculous attacks on me. Not that I could give a shit. If people don’t like my opinions, then don’t read them. Unsubscribe, read something else… Get a life.

There are so many buzz-tactics and catchphrases floating around the search marketing industry right now. For example: Google universal search, personalized search, social media, user generated media, video, local and mobile search. What advice can you give to budding search marketers in terms of how to separate the signal from the noise? There’s no such a thing as a silver bullet tactic in SEO but what emerging channels should marketers take more seriously?

Again, I think I’ve already touched on this. But just to reiterate, it’s time to leave some of the old wisdom behind and develop some new wisdom.

At the past two conferences I spoke at, I got into conversations with delegates, as I always do. And, I know that, when people are new to the industry, I’m going to get asked the same questions over and over. I don’t mind that at all. But I think that, asking questions such as “how many characters can you put in a title tag” is way down the list of priorities. Yet, it turns up over and over again. You know, if your company is called Kodak, how many characters do you “think” you need to put in the title tag?

The whole textbook SEO thing is so vastly outweighed by the marketing imperatives required to get some traction in the SERPs. Savvy marketing online to build up your brand and reputation, which in turn improves your linkage data and hopefully end user data is critical to success. I believe it’s so important to analyze the competition out there and see how they’re marketing themselves to get a true indication of the challenge. And by analyze, I don’t just mean count the characters in their title tags or keyword density of web pages, I’m talking about serious marketing analysis. The big picture.

Google is blending end user data in from so many different sources now. They want to provide the end user with the richest experience possible in order to keep them locked into the brand. It really is time to concentrate more on the end user experience.

How much do you buy into the idea of optimizing content for social media? Do you personally use social media sites like Facebook, Flickr, Digg, Del.icio.us, Twitter and/or YouTube?

I HATE Facebook! Please God, take it away and let me get some work done. If one more twat invites me to Facebook I’m going round their place with an axe! Someone has written on my wall. What the fuck is all that about? I log in and get told “three of your friends changed their underpants today” or some such bollocks. I don’t care. Go away and leave me alone. All of you. I have a job to do for crying out loud!

I think you get my point.

Wal-Mart has a Facebook profile. What a great place to get pilloried by your audience. Maybe they should have thought it through a bit more. It’s early days for this social media thing. To be honest, I think a lot of people talk about it, but I don’t think many are actually doing it. Mostly, like me, sitting on the sidelines to watch what happens next, I guess.

The most important fact about the social media thing is, these are real people having fun (if you can call it that) .And the last thing they need is to have marketing messages shoved in their face. If it’s not done carefully, it’s about as welcome as spam in your in-box.

You’re a world traveler, something I aspire to. What are your favorite places to visit?

Mainly pubs!

Hehe! Alright, I’ve been a traveler long before I got into internet business back in 1995. So I’ve covered a lot of the planet and it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. I have so many of them. My latest passion is Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong is dangerous for me. I could die of having a good time there. It’s such a vibrant, eclectic mix of everything. And it really is a city that never sleeps.

Then there’s Mother Russia. I simply adore Moscow. It’s such a happening place (and possibly the most expensive city on the planet). I love to eat in Café Pushkin for the genuine Russian experience. And I love to just walk the streets of Moscow as they are full of the most beautiful women on the planet.

Most of whom I’ll never see again, as my wife just read that bit and poked me straight in the eye!

Thanks Mike and I’m looking forward to a pint in San Jose.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he’s the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on integrated content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he’s likely on a beach somewhere doing absolutely nothing.