In this installment of the Ten Minutes With series we speak with Mike Moran, Product Manager for IBM's OmniFind search product. I was thrilled when Mike agreed to do this interview since he is so well known in this space and always has such deep insights. The fact that we can benefit from his wisdom on such a popular / important / cool topic is such a treat.
There are so many things about Mike, I don’t know where to start. First off he is the author of a wildly successful book on SEM: Search Engine Marketing Inc. The book, co-authored with Bill Hunt, has praise left, right and center (full five star rating on Amazon). Mike also has a very insightful blog called Biznology, please check that out. Mike is also publishes a well respected monthly newsletter (“where business and technology come together”), you can sign up here. Mike is also a frequent speaker at major industry conferences, you can find a listing of his upcoming appearances here.
I have to admit my favorite information about Mike was reading about his four patents.
The focus of this interview is Search Engine Optimization. I find that there a lot of hype (and employment) around this topic. Both in the areas of how to create a optimal “SEO’ed” website but also how to measure success of SEO efforts (on which we often spend thousands of dollars with little to show for in terms of bottom line impact).
This interview is long but if you are remotely interested in Search Engine Marketing (SEM / PPC / SEO) then there are a lot of actionable learnings you can take away from this post. A few main things we’ll cover:
- What is Search Engine Optimization?
- How should we think of SEO vis a vis SEM?
- What are the characteristics of a successful SEO implementation?
- How long does it take to get results of SEO efforts?
- Examples of good metrics (and some over-hyped ones)?
- Free tools to measure SEO we can use?
- Three “secret” tips on SEO you can use on your website!! :)
Here’s Mike Moran…..
1. Could you please tell us a little bit about your role at IBM?
Sure. I'm what they call a Distinguished Engineer, which is an executive-level technical position that only a few hundred technical people reach out of the hundreds of thousands within IBM, and its lots of fun. It gives me opportunities to work with groups in many places inside and outside IBM on top of my day job.
For the last eight years, I worked at ibm.com, but I've recently become a Product Manager for IBM's OMniFind search product. It's fun to have a chance to work on a software product again after so many years of looking across IBM's entire portfolio. Now, I get a chance to build up IBM's business in search, which has always been a passion of mine.
2. How do you make yourself indispensable to a company?
I think passion is a big part of it. Find what you are passionate about and go after it–you'll do a better job. But you also need to find out what is important to your company. When you find the nexus of your passion and your company's passion, that's when you become indispensable. But to become truly indispensable over a long period of time, you must break out of whatever specialty you're in and be more of a generalist.
I'm a technologist by trade, but I've learned to be a good manager and I've immersed myself in education and experience in marketing and other business skills, because becoming well-rounded makes my technical expertise even more valuable. No matter what your expertise is, if you break out of that mold and take a wider perspective about what your company needs from you, you'll make yourself invaluable.
3. What are some examples of activities and surroundings that motivate you?
I get excited about making a difference for our customers. Whether it is making a speech, or writing a book, or solving a customer's problem with our software product, I like knowing that I improved something for somebody. Similarly, I've always enjoyed career mentoring for folks. I think I like any situation where I can help other people.
4. What did you really love about your last job?
I loved a lot of things about ibm.com, which is why I stayed there for eight years. I loved having such a big Web site to experiment on and I loved having such a large team to support. By the end, I was managing 65 people around the world in charge of the user experience and the technology. I liked being able to learn new things each day and I liked being able to try things and measure whether they worked or not.
I remember when we first started our efforts in search marketing on ibm.com and how startling its been that we now draw 25 times more traffic to our site. It's those kind of successes that made me feel like we were really accomplishing a lot for IBM, but also in making our customers' path to the information they need easier.
5. This is perhaps a primitive question but: What is Search Engine Optimization?
I like primitive questions because I have a better chance of answering them.
People have different definitions of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but most would say it is the aspect of search marketing that deals with improving your site's organic search results–the ones the search engines show in the left bottom part of the results screen. Usually people exclude paid search when they use the term SEO–when they want to talk about both they call it search engine marketing or simply search marketing.
The "optimization" part of SEO concerns the techniques that you use to improve your pages rankings in the search engines. You need to make sure your pages are placed in the search engines' indexes, you need to identify which words searchers use when they are looking for stuff on your site, you need to use those words on the pages that you want found, and you need to get other sites to link to those pages. If you do all those things, you'll get the best rankings possible for your site (not necessarily #1, but as good as you can do).
6. How should we think of SEO vis a vis SEM (Pay Per Click / Search Engine Marketing)?
Any company with a Web site needs to have an SEO focus. If you don't want to take advantage of the lowest-cost way of increasing traffic to your site, then you really aren't serious about your Web site. Whatever the purpose of your Web site, SEO makes it more valuable.
Paid search is not for everyone–I'm not sure that Kellogg's or Coca-Cola benefit much from pay-per-click search, but most companies that are selling products that customers research on the Web (regardless of whether they ultimately buy online or offline) can benefit.
Research shows that companies that show up in both the organic and paid results for a search get as much as seven times the clickthrough received for either one alone, so taking advantage of both organic and paid search marketing can be highly complementary.
7. IBM and your team have received great press for a awesome Search success (including SEO), what are the characteristics of a successful SEO implementation in terms of People, Organizational Mindset, Process, Tools?
People and process are the keys to successful search marketing in a large company. One of the things that's different about our book on search marketing is that we explain the organizational work that you need to do to make search marketing successful.
The thing that is hard about search is that you need to get many people to add more tasks to their busy days. So we approached each specialist differently–we explained to product managers that if they helped us pick the keywords they'd get more sales and we explained to copy writers that if they used those keyword that more people would read what they write. Each specialist has a different motivation to help, and you need to tap into that.
But the other important difference in our approach is mindset, as you mention. The most important thing to know about search marketing is that it is more about marketing than search. You need to know the purpose of your Web site, you need to measure how effective it is at driving conversions, and you must know the value of those conversions so you can know how much effort and expense you should devote to search marketing.
If your site is a nightmare, why drive more people to it? If you don't know how much it is worth to drive an extra visitor to your site, how do you know how much to spend doing it? If you don't know the return on your search investment, how do you know when you should start spending money on something else?
8. At a high level what are some of the components of SEO site audit that we could do, as Web Analysts, that could get our companies get a feel for how our websites are doing?
The most important job of Web analysts is to get the company focused on experimentation and results. Take a direct marketing approach where you test everything and settle on the best approach right now.
I like to tell people to do it wrong quickly, and then fix it. If you know what your Web conversions are, and you know what they are worth, and you know how effective your site is at driving conversions, than you know how much to spend on search marketing to attract more visitors. Only then does it make sense to focus on search metrics.
When you do focus on search, you want to look at your search rankings, your referrals, and your conversions. You take different actions depending on what's wrong.
For example, if organic rankings are low, you need to focus on optimizing the use of search words on your pages, while if paid referrals are low, you need to tweak your ad copy. And if your organic and paid rankings are high and referrals are also high, you need to focus on the rest of the conversion path through your site.
Many tools exist to examine how well optimized your pages are and how many links you've attracted, and they are very helpful for diagnosis and correction, but rankings, referrals, and conversions are the three basic search metrics that every site needs to watch.
9. We all wants results yesterday but I think SEO is a patience game (and the rules change all the time). Could you give us some general context around how long does it take for us, Web Analytics, to notice results? Should we do daily SEO reporting? :)
No, I can't tell you how long. (OK, OK, I can't be an expert with an answer like that.) Honestly, it varies widely.
In large measure it depends on how frequently the search engines visit your site to inspect your content (with their spider programs) and how competitive the search words are. If your site is well-known and it changes frequently, the spiders probably visit each week (maybe even more frequently).
If you put up your site in 2002 and have never changed it, it might take the spider six months to come back and look when you finally do. You can use the Sitemaps protocol to help the spider understand which pages on your site are most important to index frequently, so that can help speed things up.
But a big part of the answer to this question has to do with the competitiveness of the keyword. It will take a very long time to achieve big result changes for the keyword "digital camera" because so many companies are fighting over it. You can't just optimize your page content–you'll need thousands of links to ever break into the top ten. But keywords that are unique, such as your company name, perhaps, should not take long at all to notice improvement, maybe even get to #1.
For most companies, weekly reporting is enough and for some, monthly is perfectly OK. What's important is to keep your focus on experimentation and improvement. The bad news is that organic search can take a long time to improve, but the good news is that once you are successful at it, you're happy that it doesn't change so fast.
10. There is a lot of hype in the world of SEO and measuring success. In your opinion what are the top absolutely best five Metrics (Key Performance Indicators) that we should track to measure success of our SEO efforts?
Rankings, referrals, and conversions are the three most important. If I were to add a couple more, I'd say that checking your inclusion ratio is a good idea (the number of pages from your site in the search indexes divided by your total number of pages)–it can tell you if a problem on your site is causing pages to drop out of the organic search indexes. If your keywords are very competitive, the fifth metric might be a link score from one of the popular link analysis tools. These tools attempt to place a value on the links that you have to your pages, so you can see how your efforts to attract more and better links is paying off.
[AK: You can measure Inclusion Ratio by doing a simple “site:“ operator query in your favorite search engine or you can also use http://www.marketleap.com/siteindex/ look for Search Engine Saturation. Just divide total pages indexed by total pages on your website.
You can also use the link scoring tool on the marketleap website, click on the Link Popularity Check. And include your competitors!]
11. What are some of the metrics floating around that are less than useful in measuring SEO success? We won't say you said so! :)
One metric that I think gets misused a lot is Keyword Effectiveness Index (KEI) and other variants of the same technique.
The idea behind KEI is to represent the popularity of a keyword (the number of searches containing it) compared to its popularity in usage (the number of pages it's found on). The idea is to show you how much competition there is for you to get a high ranking.
Unfortunately, people recoil in horror at even a modicum of competition, believing that they can't get the #1 ranking. Although high rankings for competitive keywords are more difficult, the simple fact is that someone's site is ranking #1. If you can make your Web site the perfect answer for a query, even a popular query, you'll get high rankings regardless of how competitive it is. It's harder, but don't use KEI to give up before you've even started.
The reason to shy away from a popular keyword is because it does not perfectly match your site, not because it is competitive.
12. Are there tools (software or websites), free or paid, that we can use to 1: do audits of how optimized our websites are for SEO and 2: measure success of SEO? (I am thinking SEM Director which is not free or any links out there etc, whatever you are comfortable sharing.)
There's no shortage of tools, and we give a comparison of the most popular ones in our book. The list is too long for an answer here, but my Web site does offer "The Skinflint's Guide to Search Marketing" which highlights free tools and techniques anyone can use to improve their site's search success.
13. Many readers of this blog are Web Analytics professionals, have you see any features in the standard web analytics tools (Visual Sciences, Omniture, ClickTracks, CoreMetrics, WebTrends, Google Analytics etc) that you think can be exploited for measuring SEO efforts?
I think they all cover the basics of referrals and conversions, but I haven't seen any that do a good job of integrating the other metrics such as rankings, inclusion,link scores and other metrics. At this point, you need to cobble together a number of different tools.
I have noticed that CoreMetrics is making some interesting progress in integrating paid search management into their tool-set, so maybe they are the ones to keep an eye on.
14. Since SEO is your life, :), would you share your top three top secret tips on SEO? (How to have a totally "SEO'ed" site.)
I think that search is probably my life now, given my new role in enterprise search with IBM's OmniFind product, but that's close enough. With a book, my column in Revenue magazine, my newsletter, my blog, and all the speaking appearances that I do, I don't think I have any secrets left! Here's my best advice:
1. Start with marketing, not with search. Know the business purpose of your site, design it to fulfill that purpose, measure its success, and experiment with improvements every day. There's no use driving more traffic to a bad site. You must adopt a culture of experimentation and measurement for your Web site. If you do, it will be natural to do your SEO that way also. You'll know why you're doing what you're doing and you'll know what it's worth.
2. Remember that your people have to do it. There's no secret technique, no magic tool, and no incredible process that makes SEO work. What makes it work is your people. Every person that touches your Web site must know that SEO is part of their job and must do the extra work to make it happen. They must know why it is important, they must know what they need to do, and they must be measured on getting it done. The hard part about a lot of Web marketing (it's true of blogs, for example), is that you can't centralize it. You can't out source it. You can't hire a couple of search gurus and have them do it all. Because no matter what they do, your copy writers still pick the words and your Webmaster does the redirects and your programmers code the dynamic page code and if they all don't do what's needed, your SEO doesn't work.
3. Keep the customer in mind. Search marketing works because you provide the information the customer is looking for at the point of need. The minute you start thinking you can interrupt what they are doing and give them your message, you're sunk. You can spin your information in your favor, yes, but you can't just change the subject and expect them to stick around. And no matter how much work you think you need to do to appeal to search engines, if you write turgid prose that causes real human beings to faint dead away, of what benefit is your #1 ranking? If you consistently write for your customer and keep the customer's goal in mind, you'll eventually win over the search engines, too, because the links you attract will get you to the top.
I hope you found value from Mike’s insights. Please share your feedback on what answers you found particularly helpful. Do you have tips of your own to share around SEO, links, tools, metrics, anything? Please add to the conversation.
I want to thank Mike for his time and this amazingly insightful interview.
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