Interview with Danny Sullivan

MARK: Let’s go back in time about a decade and talk about how you got started in technology and from there, SEO?

DANNY: Well, I was a newspaper reporter and I saw the web, liked what I saw, and wanted to be involved with it, so I left newspapers and started working with a friend of mine who developed websites. This was the beginning of 1995. We as part of building up websites would promote them out on the web for people, including submitting to the search engines and we had one client in particular who didn’t understand why he wasn’t ranking top – and there weren’t any really good answers at the time – that we really quite knew why search engines would rank things better or not rank better. So, I started looking into it and I published all of the information that I found the following year on something I call “The Webmasters Guide to Search Engines,” which was explaining a lot of the stuff that’s still true today – you know the title tags are important, content was important, some of the search engines weren’t even crawling the web as much as you thought. There was a lot of good interest in that and people really liked the information, so I just sort of kept at it, and it developed into what I’m doing today.

MARK: And who were the primary engines back then?

DANNY: Back then Yahoo! was the biggest and most important of the search engines and it was the one that didn’t crawl the web; it was the one that really depended on how you submitted to the directory. The other big search engines at the time: AltaVista, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, a little bit of Opentext, Web Crawler was still hanging in there.

MARK: So it seems like, today we have one dominant one, back then that wasn’t true, there were five or six…

DANNY: Yep, I would say that Yahoo! by far the most dominant of the search engines and people used to talk about Yahoo! in the same way they talk about Google today; including to the degree that site owners would say that Yahoo! had too much power and too much control over how they were going to be showing up or not showing up. It was a huge deal for people. They were talking about whether Yahoo! should be regulated and such because it was so difficult for people to get listed.

MARK: And again, they weren’t really an engine as much as a directory…

DANNY: Yeah, but for the typical searcher there was no real difference to that, you didn’t really understand.

MARK: Oh, got it.

DANNY: It’s care of the searcher how they got their listings, you just thought they were a search engine.

MARK: If you back up in that same era, who were some of the early birds that were either right there along side of you, or if anyone was there before you?

DANNY: The people from the very early days… at the time that I was writing, let me see I just wrote about something like this, let me think if I can find some of the names… at the time that I started writing there was a guy named ‘Webmaster T’ who was out there, John Heard who was writing for Planet Ocean, Somebody like Fredrick Marckini was writing fairly early on who founded iProspect. You had other people like Detlev Johnson, Marshall Simmonds, Catherine Saida, Dana Todd, Heather Lloyd-Martin, Chris Sherman was writing about stuff around 1997 as well.

MARK: How did you meet Marshall?

DANNY: I had actually gone up and done some training for Multimedia Marketing Group (MMG) at the time, in 1997, to teach them how to do search engine optimization. MMG of course was a big huge force on the internet marketing scene at the time, you know John Audette had this whole legacy of young people he brought in and kind of oversaw and a lot of people emerged out of that. So, I had gone up in November and did this sort of training, Marshall was one of those people at the time. And a lot of people from MMG at the time were already posting out on the internet and talking and sharing about how they were doing internet marketing.

MARK: Did you live in London at the time?

DANNY: Yeah.

MARK: Did other companies contract you to come out and do training?

DANNY: Oh, I did a little bit of it for inhouse; I didn’t do much in terms of agency work. It was more that I was doing work for the occasional company that wanted to train people up internally to do SEO.

MARK: Was that your first trip to beautiful Bend, Oregon?

DANNY: It was my first and last one. I am hoping to get back there someday.

MARK: So you’re writing about search engines and then somehow this conference idea gets in your head, “hey let’s get all of these people together at one place, and help all these folks learn in a conference setting.” Let’s talk about…

DANNY: Actually it was the guy who is now the president of my current company Third Door Media who came up with that idea, Chris Elwell. Chris Elwell was general manager of, and is now Jupiter Media; they’ve been through various name changes so it is probably easier to call them Jupiter Media. Jupiter Media bought Search Engine Watch in 1997 from me. So I continued to maintain the website and do all of the editorial stuff like I had done before. Jupiter also had been doing conferences, and Chris thought, “Well maybe we should do one on search, do you think that would fly?” And I thought, “Yeah, I think this would go over great,” because at that point I had been to enough conferences where search was kind of shoved into a corner, people would talk about it a little bit as part of all of these other things that were going on, on the internet, and I thought it deserved a lot greater attention, so we did our first show.

MARK: And when was that?

DANNY: It was November of 1999 in San Francisco.

MARK: So with your new company, Third Door Media, what do you invest most of your time in currently?

DANNY: Well, most of my time is spent on the site itself, Search Engine Land, going through and reviewing the content that we are going to put out there, doing my own writing as well. After that, my time goes into preparing for the conferences that we’re doing through Search Marketing Expo, and then whatever is left in terms of general company stuff, in terms of “what do we do next?” A lot of my time of course is also spent on our social networking site; it’s been where I went looking through the comments, responding to people, and taking part in the community there.

MARK: And then building tree houses when you’re not doing all that stuff.

DANNY: Yeah, and when the weather is good enough for it.

MARK: Well that certainly seems like it would keep a person busy, just those three items alone.

DANNY: Absolutely.

MARK: I observe a lot of new folks getting involved which is exciting. I’m curious from your perspective, when you look out in the future, what do you see out there for search and SEO?

DANNY: Well for search, continued growth of the blended search that we’ve seen come up this past year. Probably more of trying to integrate some of the social stuff into it as well, and personalization. I think that for the SEOs it’s going to be a continued challenge to understand how the search engines are getting their results and all of these different vertical spaces that provide you the ability to get listed and opportunities, but it just becomes more complicated. It’s not just optimizing your title tags if your talking about being found in local search, it’s a collection of claiming your local result optimization on that as well.

MARK: It seems like the search engines are out there seeking relevancy and most SEOs are busy building relevant sites and Black Hat keeps the defensive guards up. What kinds of things from a search engine perspective, do you see, as they look toward the search engine optimizer community?

DANNY: I think they have gotten friendlier to it, more supportive, and a lot more open to it than they ever were in the past.

MARK: What are some of the most dramatic search engine reactions based on some Black Hat technique? I’m trying to get beyond a single site getting banned. Like for example, recently we had that whole link farm discovery and page rank removal…

DANNY: I think if you are asking, for example, “What dramatic reaction we’ve seen that search engines have taken to say SEO in general?” that would be Google Webmaster Central. So, it’s usually easy to focus on the negative, but you say that you’ve had this whole community of SEOs and what do the search engines do to react to support them? Google has gone through and unloaded an entire suite of free tools to help support people who are trying to do SEO, which I think stands out far and above any other thing that they’ve ever done. You can go over and look at Yahoo!, which has got the site explorer with similar tools, and you’ve seen that Live is going through and now they’re trying to duplicate what Google has done as well. So in terms of the most dramatic reaction to SEO, that’s it. Now, that’s also as it is the most positive reaction that we’ve had come to it. If you want the most negative reaction to SEO, probably the Florida update of 2003, where Google went through and made significant changes to the ranking algorithm, which was designed to combat some of the spam that had come in, and it hit a lot of webmasters, and it wasn’t that they were just hitting SEO in general, but they were trying to fight spam. I suppose you could even go and say the most dramatic thing before that was the reliance on links, because one of the reasons why they had to go to the link analysis in the first place was that you have a lot of site owners that were trying to manipulate them with on the page criteria, so they needed another solution. I probably would go back to the whole Florida update.

MARK: Excellent. So, I’m sitting here looking back in time… so nine years after Google is born, it decides to recognize and build some tools for webmasters, and prior to that there really hasn’t been, from a search engine’s perspective, an acknowledgement or “let’s do something for those folks” attitude behind the engines, and so nine years after Google’s inception was really the first of it and it almost sounds like MSN and Yahoo! never really have done anything like that in their past.

DANNY: Yahoo! had rolled out some site explorer tools, I can’t remember who predated whom, but Google really came in and did that, more than I think what Yahoo! was doing.

MARK: And that’s pretty young, like webmaster tools hasn’t been around for very long, and I’m hearing inside of the SEO community people love it, and it is very helpful. I guess I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, “hey this is a major step forward from the engines coming out,” it just kind of seemed like the next logical thing to do.

DANNY: Absolutely.

MARK: So, when we look at all of the different tools that SEO folks use, and there are a whole lot of tools out there. What are some of your favorites? The Danny Sullivan favorites?

DANNY: Of SEO tools? From the search engines or just in general?

MARK: In general.

DANNY: I don’t really look at a lot of tools. I’m not an “in the trenches” SEO type of person. I was never a big fan of a lot of tools in the first place. I guess that’s because I’m more of a content driven type of person. They’ve started coming in with so many different tools that I just couldn’t take the time to go through and evaluate those. I mean, I have little ones that I do like; for example, I think the Search Status tool that you put into your tool bar is hugely helpful. This is the one that lets you highlight “no follow links” or lets you get page rank listing reports that come into it. It’s just a lot of goodness bundled into… it’s a Firefox add on actually.

MARK: Vanessa Fox was in Portland a couple weeks back and she turns the graphics off in the browser, just to take a look at what the site looks like. It’s amazing how many sites crumble at that simple test. It still seems like there a ton of sites out there that haven’t really thought about being engine friendly.

DANNY: Yeah, that’s definitely true.

MARK: Yeah, it seems like there is plenty of work to do. So, content management systems seem to be a bane of many of the SEOs. They’re either fighting them or just disappointed in them. Have you seen any shifts and changes over the years from a company like that trying to help somebody launch a website but keeping in mind all of the different things: content, search engines, brand, etc?

DANNY: I can’t say that I’ve heard any CMSs have made any huge things attractive, but you occasionally see somebody come through and say that they’ve got a tool that’s designed to try to help you do better. But, I think that there seems to be a little more awareness on some of the CMSs, that people are going to want to have the ability to say put meta-tags on their pages; maybe they’re going to want to be able to have pages have individual titles rather than all the same kinds of titles. I don’t know the degree of some of the CMSs that have done things like put out site maps on an automated basis, which would be helpful.

MARK: Right. I was looking at just evaluating some of the ecommerce offerings out there, and I came across a couple sites where it’s really kind of funny, the term SEO is used and then it has a checkmark in the column like, “Hey this ecommerce site does SEO.” And that’s the full description of SEO, it’s just a checkmark. I’m just asking myself, “Gosh, I wonder how many folks read that and go, ‘Oh great we’re going to be safe,’ and what does that mean?” Its way too high-level of a description to give it a checkmark, and it doesn’t seem as though they’ve dug down that next layer yet. I’ve seen URL re-writes and, like you were just mentioning, title tags, but it seems like something that hasn’t really happened yet. I’m curious if you’ve seen any shifts or change, other than just acknowledgment?

DANNY: I agree. It’s not really there. I don’t know if it will eventually get there or not, but I think there is still a long ways to go between, say, helping the people who build tools like that, as well as designers to understanding how search engines work. And I can underscore that by the fact that I still get people asking me, “Well when do you think the search engines are going to be able to deal with flash.” I don’t know, you know, they haven’t dealt with it for 10 years; I don’t know why they’d suddenly decide this is the year to do it. You would think at this point people wouldn’t be sitting around for 10 years wondering when search engines are going to be able to get flash; they’re never going to get flash.

MARK: Ha-ha. That’s a long wait. When did you meet or hear about Bruce Clay’s work?

DANNY: Oh, fairly early on. Bruce, I can’t remember if it was 98 or so. In particular, Bruce of course had his search engine clustering chart, trying to show you the people of which search engines were powered by.

MARK: I remember that same thing too.

DANNY: Yeah, it’s nice these days; you don’t have to worry about it so much.

MARK: Yeah, it’s a pretty simple graph. Bruce’s graph updates have probably not been that challenging for him the last couple of years. It’s really funny, I hired someone last year and we work with Bruce on some projects, and they said, “Bruce Clay?” and it was almost like he was a celebrity, but it turns out they studied Bruce Clay’s work in a college class on the internet, and Bruce’s influence. It was really pretty funny.

DANNY: That’s great for Bruce; wonderful.

MARK: And I know he get’s teased a lot for being “old as dirt,” but boy, what a nice guy. He was certainly part of the early years; he’s definitely one of those. What about Barry Schwartz? When did you meet Barry?

DANNY: I can’t recall exactly. Barry used to run a tool at one point, to help people get results back, and see how you were being ranked on Google. I can’t even remember what it was called. I think it was around 2002, and I emailed him a little bit from there, and of course I recall him from doing Search Engine Roundtable, and occasionally had emailed him. But I really worked with him a lot, I think it was in 2005, when Gary Price, my old news editor left and recommended Barry coming on, and he’s been great.

MARK: Yeah, he does a great job. Another name from the past – when did you first meet or hear about Jim Boykin?

DANNY: I kind of don’t recall, maybe around 2004 perhaps? I think I either came across his blog, or he may have been at a conference, where he wanted to be speaking and talking and doing different things; I think it was one of those two.

MARK: I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to rattle off some names and you can just keep doing this. Like Detlev Johnson?

DANNY: I think I met Detlev when I went out to Bend. I think he was working for MMG at the time.

MARK: Yeah, he’s certainly front and center…

DANNY: There were a lot of people that were on a mailing list that we had. It was the INET-MARKETING List. So a lot of people corresponded that way. We didn’t have blogs, and we didn’t have forums, we had mailing lists.

MARK: INET-MARKETING. Is that something you were involved in?

DANNY: I wasn’t. I was just one of the readers on it.

MARK: Do you remember Derek Wheeler?

DANNY: Yep. He was another MMG person too. I may have met him when I did the initial training.

MARK: Part of this little project I’m working on is just trying to dig back and try to see how this thing got started, because it just seems like its huge, it’s growing fast, and it’s really just getting started. It’s kind of fun. Some of these guys that are considered “old guys” in this industry are actually really young guys; they’ve just been around in this area for a very long time. Do you remember Jim Stob?

DANNY: Uh huh; absolutely.

MARK: Any dates or things come to mind on how you first met him?

DANNY: I probably talked to him when he first launched Position Pro at the time, and it was a tool that I spent some time looking at, and I thought it was a great tool.

MARK: So, someone is brand new and they’re all of a sudden interested in search, how would you recommend they get started? How should they spend their first year, for example?

DANNY: Getting started to become an SEO?

MARK: Yes.

DANNY: You know it depends; people come to it from different ways. Some of them want to do it just for themselves, and so they could do a lot of online instruction and online reading and get up to speed that way. Some people are wanting to go out and do that for a client, and I think you probably have two courses there; first is that you start doing it for yourself and you try to branch out to people and see if you can get some of the trust you need to do for your clients what you have proven to be able to do for yourself. Second, would be to find a company that’s willing to take you on as sort of an intern, or starter type of thing, and go with them.

MARK: Does it seem much different than it used to be, or if I asked you that question 10 years ago, would the answer be any different?

DANNY: I probably wouldn’t have suggested to go find a company to work for, because there were fewer companies. It was much more expected that you just go out and start doing it for people directly – do it on your own.

MARK: It’s kind of fun and it’s challenging, and it’s moving. I think that is really promising. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be settling down. I have really enjoyed the events that you’ve hosted and SES for many many years and of course I was in Seattle when you launched the SMX Advanced and the SMX series, and I’m looking forward to the things you are going to be doing in the future. You know, one thing I have noticed is this focus on international and I’m just curious what your experience has been internationally as this thing expands worldwide.

DANNY: Well, interestingly, I’m already international because I don’t live in the US. Ha-ha. (update: Danny and his family have moved to California in mid 2008)

MARK: (Laugh) I guess that’s true.

DANNY: It’s been interesting in the UK, I actually spend more of my time probably interacting with the media in the US that in the UK, although that’s starting to change. It depends I guess from country to country. I’ve never gone to any particular country and thought, “Oh, wow, I’m big in Japan.” You know that sort of thing. You sometimes hear people joke about that if you are a musician or something like that. I’ve seen interest in SEO in every country I’ve ever been in though. It’s just always there. The differences I see from country to country are just really the level of maturity. Where you get back to some countries and think, “Wow, you guys are really in 2001, in terms of, your still having to sell clients on the idea of search; you’re still having to try to convince them to let you do changes to sites, you don’t have perhaps some of the paid support that you would like.” That’s where it tends to come along.

MARK: If you were going to compare the UK and the US, two that you’re pretty familiar with, what are some of the similarities and some of the biggest differences between those two countries in the world of search?

DANNY: The biggest difference with the UK is that things are much more agency driven. So, you just tend to have more of the ad agencies, and things are more centralized around London. Not to say that everything happened in London, but you have a lot more of that. To where as in the US, if I were going to say, “Where’s the center of SEO or SEM?” you pick it. The US is big; it’s spread out a lot more.

MARK: Right; interesting. So, going back in time again, obviously before we could have search engine optimization we had to have search engines and so Yahoo! got its start in 1995…

DANNY: Yahoo!, and other engines like Open Text, or AltaVista, or Excite. Yahoo! was one of the earliest and so was Lycos.

MARK: So before 1995… one of the things I’m building is a timeline of major events and the years that they happened… so if you think of any major events before 1995 in the world of SEO, does anything come to mind?


MARK: So then 1995 comes along, and you have a place that you need to submit your site to.

DANNY: It’s difficult because in 1994 I think you were really looking at say, Open Text, Yahoo!, and Lycos. We were just getting the search engines, and I just don’t know how much was really going on in terms of an event other than you submit your site and you use the add URL form types of things.

MARK: Right. Then other players start to show up through time, and I guess at some point your on page content starts to matter…

DANNY: Well, page content already mattered with any of the crawlers, so Open Text or Lycos already cared about it. If you’re looking for the evolution it was more a case of Yahoo! was very much “You’ve got to submit,” and how you submit to the human directory had a big impact on you. AltaVista comes along and starts including many many more of your pages than the other players had done. The other players tended to sometimes not index your entire content, or they would have other things that would go on. Where AltaVista was being much more comprehensive. And then your next jump after that was really Google coming in and saying “We’re going to look at links,” say 1998.

MARK: Wow. Three major innovations over…

DANNY: A very short period of time.

MARK: Yeah, yeah, really. Well, we really appreciate your time.

DANNY: Sure.

MARK: Of course I’ll see you at SMX West in February and probably other shows after that. You’ve been very generous and if there’s anything we can do for you just give us a jingle.

DANNY: Alright. Good luck with putting this together, I’d be interested to see how you pull it all down in the end.

MARK: Right, thank you sir.

DANNY: You’re welcome, take care.