Matt McGowan

Mark: Well, we are sitting here this morning with Matt McGowan, Vice President of Incisive Media. We are excited to have you on the phone this morning and would love to hear about your story and the History of SEO from Matt McGowan’s eyes.

Matt: Thanks Mark. I’m looking forward to discussing with you what we’ve seen over the last few years here.

Mark: So let’s back up in time to before you got into search. What kinds of things were you doing beforehand?

Matt: I graduated college and joined up with a financial services company on Wall Street. Within about a year of working there, I was transferred to San Francisco during a dotcom boom. My eyes were opened as to where the opportunities that were available online. At that moment is when I took a job with Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishers based out of London as a Marketing Manager, working to digitize their library of content and then develop syndication deals online with portals. It was at that point that I started to understand that people were using search engines there was Web Crawler and such back then to find content. It’s not something I ever actually thought about before. So that’s kind of the foray into the space.

I saw myself go back to business school in 2002 at the University of Oxford and I ended up at a small e retail auction house, which we grew to over 30 million dollars in revenue before I left in 2006. That’s a brief history.

Mark: That’s a pretty exciting ride.

Matt: Yeah, it was a lot fun. I wasn’t the first guy on board and I wasn’t the founder, but I was a member of the executive team as Vice President of Sales and Marketing and Operations. I managed four fulfillment centers nationally: one up in Seattle, one in Orange County, one in New York, and one down in Florida. A small marketing team of about four people and a small sales team, I think, of four more. Really interesting opportunity and I had a lot of fun with that. The company had a change of ownership and I noticed an opportunity with one that I was most fascinated with and that I had spent a lot of time reading as a Vice President of Marketing for ClickZ and Search Engine Watch. I had the chance to sit down and work with those individuals who I had been reading from for so many years: Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman and Rebecca Lee especially were just too much to pass up. In addition, it brought me back to New York City which is where I was born and bred, so it was nice to come home from California. So that’s kind of how I ended up here. The rest is history. I guess, we are going into that now.

Mark: Well, what a great opportunity!

Matt: Yes, an excellent opportunity.

Mark: So when was that when you joined?

Matt: I joined up with Incisive… Well, I joined up with ClickZ and Search Engine Watch right when they made the acquisition of the property from Jupiter Media. That was back in June of 2006.

Mark: Right, right, OK, OK.

Matt: When Incisive bought ClickZ, Search Engine Watch, and the event series Search Engine Strategies (SES), they bought the sites, the archives of content, the future rights to the brands, the editorial team that came with it that was attached to the sites and to the events. They brought over the sales team from Jupiter. They brought over the operations team but they didn’t bring over the marketing team. So there was one hire that needed to be made immediately, which was me. At the time, I was the title of Vice President of Marketing and it was my remit to kind of bring the business over to Incisive and grow a marketing team to keep traffic flowing and attendees in seats and exhibitors and sponsors in the expo hall.

Mark: Those are some big shoes to fill.

Matt: It was. I took over for a guy who I admired actually, a man named Mike Milt who had been managing marketing for and ClickZ and Search Engine Watch and SES for seven years. So it was a big change for the properties “who’s this guy? Who’s Matt McGowan? I’ve never heard of him before.”

Mark: Right.

Matt: Big shoes to fill for sure.

Mark: Well, you’ve certainly made a name for yourself now. I think everybody in search knows who you are.

Matt: It’s been a lot of fun. I found the search industry to welcome me with arms wide open, which was more than I expected. I found that I got along with everybody immediately. There was a lot going on, everyone had their own agenda, but I think the search industry is unique in that it’s still relatively new and young enough that most people know each other or at least know of each other and the market is big enough so that everyone can work together and succeed. I notice a lot of cooperation and not so much competition.

Mark: Yeah, I’ve made those same observations. What is it about search that you like so much?

Matt: Well, I think everyone is looking for something and the search engines have found a way to help people find what they’re looking for. What I do love is digital. When it comes to a career, I don’t see myself ever leaving digital. Search has become the lion’s share of digital to help people find what they’re looking for. It’s where the consumer starts his or her purchasing decisions and processes. So it’s neat. It’s kind of the beginning of the funnel. So, as an industry, it’s super important to understand what goes on behind the scenes of the engines and in the minds of the consumer. Then on a personal level, I think people within the industry are just fantastic. I’ve never met such a strong group of entrepreneurs, business owners and just super intelligent thought leaders.

Mark: Well, that’s well said. OK, so now you’re over and you have this new task in front of you. You’re at Incisive, where do things go from there?

Matt: Personally, I think the worst thing that could ever happen, happened. The people that I looked up to and who I had been reading and learning from, within six months of my arrival, kind of split with the executives over Incisive and the process of parting ways began. That was hard for me. I didn’t know Incisive, the brand didn’t mean anything to me at the time. All I knew was ClickZ and Search Engine Watch, and Search Engine Strategies. That were the brands that I was most familiar with.

So when people started splitting up, it’s never easy I guess when you have friends on both sides. When your friend breaks up with his girlfriend and you’re friends with both of them, it’s never easy on you. So it was an interesting time, that luckily I’ve survived and prospered from. I think it opened up a world of opportunities for me which at the time I didn’t realize, but which now I think I’ve found, but at the time it was a little scary.

Mark: Yeah. Danny is a thought leader and one of the first guys to start writing about search engines. Probably a lot of the inspirations in some of your answers were probably received from him and now he’s trying to figure out a way to exit because it didn’t work out.

Matt: Exactly.

Mark: Yeah, I think we all remember those times and I’ve been going to both conferences since the second series started up and it hasn’t been a big conflict for me.

Matt: It’s interesting. I remember in the early days of 2007, a lot of people saying, “Well, one of these shows are going to die. It’s probably going to be Search Engine Strategies because they don’t have Danny anymore and Danny is the heart and soul of the business.” While he was the heart and soul of the business, I think what everyone underestimated was the power of the brand, and more importantly the size of the industry. Some of our best when I say best I should say our largest events-took place at the end of 2007 and early 2008, a year after Danny officially parted ways with Incisive, while after he had launched his event series and after he had launched his portal Search Engine Land. I think credit is due to the strength of the brand, the strength of the community for being able to support both products, both events, both websites and to the industry for being so resilient.

This is not the first time this is happening in young growth industries and probably won’t be the last. Long story short and jump forward to today, we can go back and discuss more about what happened, but I think both brands are doing well and probably have a bright future.

Mark: I agree with you. I think from my perspective, small business has a hard time with succession planning. It’s often built around a personality and for someone to build a business and be able to exit a strong business and have it stay strong, says a lot about the way the business was constructed. It is very difficult for companies to get away from that personality dependence when you start off with two or three people and that’s what Danny was able to do. I admire him for that.

Matt: Definitely. To this day, I continue to stay in touch with him and their team. I feel like we have a bond because of what happened. I do consider him a friend and putting myself in his shoes, it must have been really tough for him. He had spent almost ten years of his life building something and he had to step away because of decisions he made earlier on in his career around ownership of what he was building. That said, Danny is an entrepreneur. The opportunity to go out and build something new and do it again with insights that he probably picked up from building Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Strategies probably lent a hand to him doing real well the second time. There is a thing with a serial entrepreneur. In order to start a second business, you usually have to step away from the first.

Mark: Yeah, that’s true. So you’re primarily responsible for Marketing at Incisive and brand building, things like that. What have you seen? What are some of the key, significant events that you’ve seen over the years in the world of SEO?

Matt: That’s an interesting question. When I joined up with Incisive, I was responsible for marketing and pretty much marketing only and sales support and so on. Today, I’m responsible for the sales side, the marketing side and the operations side of the business. Some of the things that I’ve noticed over the years, one thing is, search is evolving every day. Just in the small amount of time that I’ve been involved in the industry, I’ve watched all the rules change. I’ve watched the variables that the engines look to return relevant results grow from maybe a handful to hundreds. I’ve watched blogging just blossom. That’s changed everything. There is more content out there than any of the engines can ever index. Most recently social media has been a massive game changer. Looking to the future, I think that the search engines can aggregate information on users based on their queries and it takes time for them to build a profile of any given user. But, I look at pages like Facebook and MySpace and so on and so forth. In ten minutes, Facebook and MySpace can get more information on a customer than any search engine ever will. So I wonder what the future holds and I wonder who in the future will be able to really return the most relevant results.

The reason I’m starting to think that way is because on the commercial side I’ve seen the Facebooks and the MySpaces 1) take talent from the search engines and 2) start to spend money with my business to try to attract the advertisers. They believe in their products and I think so do we all.

So there’s been a lot of change, but I think one thing I look forward to in 2009 and 2010 and even forward, one thing I love about digital, is that the only constant is change and progress. That keeps me on my toes and excited.

Mark: It is fun. You have to love learning to stay in this game.

Matt: I feel like if you drop out for a year and you go do something else when you come back, it would be, “how relevant are your skills?” I don’t know. But if you don’t keep up, and I’m sure you know, if you don’t keep up on your training and what’s going on in the space, you become irrelevant. I think some of the best SEOs, some of the best Marketers out there are learning every day.

Mark: Are you guys planning on another conference series focused in the social or blogging area or is it going to be a track within?

Matt: I don’t know if it’s going to be another series, but I think you’ll see more. Again, I don’t program these shows. We rely on a panel of experts to do so. But I think, what we’ll see is more and more topics, more and more sessions covering social media and how it relates to search. So it won’t be a dedicated show. We’ve actually tried the dedicated social media shows in the past. The problem in doing a show is that you need to return a profit on it; otherwise the company doesn’t want to do it. As of yet, the sponsorship dollars and the delegate dollars do not indicate that there is a market for a show truly on social media, at least a show of a size that we would want to throw. That said, I am seeing more and more interest as we hold sessions on social media marketing and such, in terms of numbers in the rooms. So, it may come one day, but I think when you think of search engine strategies what you see will be more global expansion. We are actually launching a show in a new market next week. We will always have our base shows New York, San Jose, Chicago, Toronto, London. We will continue to explore new markets in Germany, throughout Europe, and Asia, and maybe even south of the border… south of the equator, sorry.

Mark: We will have to keep an eye open for that.

Matt: Yeah, I hope so.

Mark: We keep at the history of SEO all the upcoming events for the primary conference series are always posted there to help folks. So if someone is coming new into the space, maybe they are internal right now, but just getting started in the world of search, from your perspective, what kinds of things can they do to get up to speed quickly?

Matt: If you are new to the space, you have got to start reading. There are numerous sites out there to subscribe to and just start to get an understanding for what the challenges are the companies are facing in the space. What it is that the people who have been doing it the longest. I think, most of the people that have been doing search the longest are currently writing for at least one of the publications or blogging somewhere, so they are offering insights everyday that you just need to be aware of and start to digest. Attending a conference is a big show that covers search over three or four days like Search Engine Strategies is a must. Three or four days, you immerse yourself in everything search and you walk away with a binder of notes and action items. But I think, even more important than that is to start experimenting, launch a site, go through the steps yourself. If you are looking for a company, ask questions, but in your free time, if you have the time, try it out. It’s real simple to start a blog for just a few dollars; it is even free in some places. Start optimizing it and see what you can do, building links and so on and so forth.

At the same time, I think anyone new in the space should understand that the same principles apply that have always applied in marketing. Yes, we are more concerned about return on investment and watching the numbers so to speak. I think all search marketers are probably mathematicians at heart. But the same principles apply. We are trying to reach the customer for the lowest price possible to make a sale. I wouldn’t say it’s not rocket science, but the principle, what you are trying to do, has not changed. Anyone new to the space should really just jump right in.

Mark: I want to touch back on the online reading. One thing I have noticed is that there are just tons and tons of websites out there.

Matt: Exactly.

Mark: I almost feel for the person that is just getting started. How can they possibly have discernment about which one is worth reading and which one is not? A lot of advice is very application specific, and I hear things being spoken out of context all the time, “always do this, no, never do that.” I was just curious if you had any websites specifically that you would recommend someone read on a regular basis.

Matt: Yes, I think, the sites I represent are must reads, and I think subscribing to some of our competitor’s sites is definitely worth it as well – Search Engine Land, AdAge. I think, subscribing to the search engine blogs, be it the webmaster team over Google, or more specifically Matt Kutzu’s blog, or the blogs that Microsoft and Yahoo! offer up is very important. I think there are others out there; each one has its own character, so you have to find the one that makes the most sense. But if you just look at the speakers that speak in Search Engine Strategies, what you will find that they each have, I would say 90% of them have a blog that is worth reading. But there is no way you can read them all. So you have to find the one that speaks to you. As you have said, they all speak to something a little bit different. I do not know if you are interested in enterprise search or search for small business, but at the end of the day, you have got to find the one that speaks to you the best.

Mark: That is good advice and you rattled off some really good sites, that is a great start. I even found some print books to be helpful. I really liked “SEO: In An Hour a Day” and Bill Hunt’s book.

Matt: Bill Hunt’s book, I actually haven’t read it, but it is on my list. I hear it’s fantastic. “Search Engine Marketing, Inc.” if I remember correctly.

Mark: Correct. And of course the conferences, I am a big proponent of the conferences, because I think you kind of hit the nail on the head, the immersion that you get in those three or four days. All the people of search, they are all right there, you just dive in deep. It just changes your perspective, I think.

Matt: It definitely does, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is actually going to the shows and watching people come out with their eyes wide open. Their notebooks full of notes, on the phone with their web developers, their marketing team, whoever it might be, their boss, their colleagues, telling “Oh my God, there is so much work we have to do, and we have so little time.” It is fantastic. Again, the thing about the events, yourself included, is the support that we get from the entire industry. It is not like we are paying speakers here to come out and this is their job. Speakers are there to show their stuff, and to build relationships with potential clients and the other experts and colleagues within the space. They come on their own dime 99% of the time. It is a fantastic marriage of just people with the know how, and people with the pocketbooks, and the urge to learn and pick up the strategies and tactics that will take them forward and their businesses forward in the upcoming years. It’s just a cool experience.

I was never a big conference guy before I started in the shop back in 2006. I do not know if I could pull myself away right now because the energy is just so fantastic. You always forget that there are people out there trying to do the same thing as you are.

And there are opportunities daily, weekly, monthly, annually; depending on what city you are in around the world to meet up with them. Conferences big and small all have their advantages, but getting out to them, shaking people’s hands, getting away from the computer for a few days, it’s highly recommended.

Mark: I have to admit, you mentioned big and small, I really enjoyed the SES series. Last year, I went to a Kelsey Group Local in LA, put on through you guys, and it was a very small show, but it was fantastic. The quality of the content and the way that show was put together, it was just amazing. In retrospect, I came out of there thinking, ‘Hey, these smaller, more focused shows are really, really very good.’ And, if that’s your space, if it’s local or mobile, or whatever your particular interest is, it’s another one to consider. It’s just getting into a very specific show targeted to what your greatest interest is. I was blown away.

Matt: I couldn’t agree more. Kelsey shows are fantastic. There’s actually a series launched just about two years ago by a guy by the name of Aaron Kahlow, The Online Marketing Summits. And in those, he’s covering search, analytics, and social media. He’s kind of covering more than just search, but the gamut of all things digital. Some of those just can be tiny. They can be like 50 people. And that said, what you pull out of that can be just as valuable as what you pull out of a show that’s 7,000, 6,000 people, or even 15,000 or 20,000 people.

What I find is most people that we encounter just a quick background here, about 80 percent of our delegates are first timers to a show specific on search. This happens year in and year out; 20 percent come back. They come out with, like, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ They’ve got this huge overview of all that’s available to them tools, strategies, so on and so forth.

And then, the second, third and fourth show they go to, I think they tend to specialize a little bit more as to what is most relevant to the problems that they are having. So, maybe we are the… again I bring up this funnel, if you start with the SES type event, and then you work your way down to one of his more niche, industry specific events that really speak to the issues that you’re having.

It might be a good plan if any new people are out there reading this thinking, how should I move forward? You go to some of those really specific local shows, and they’re great shows, but if you don’t have any background, you might be a little bit lost.

Mark: Yeah, the big shows definitely provide a context.

Matt: Context is important. I think it’s very important. That said, I wouldn’t sell them short. You can find very specific, very niche information at a big show if you know what you’re looking for. Like you said, they both have value in my mind. And, some of our SES events are actually quite small. We’ve got shows in Paris with about 250 people in attendance; Hamburg with about 400 people in attendance. And some of them are quite big, like New York, San Jose with almost 7,000 in attendance. Again, I like them. I’m hooked on the show, I’m hooked on the industry. It’s a great group of people.

Mark: So, where to from here? We’ve got 2009 into 2010 in front of us. Are folks asking different questions, or what kinds of things should they be thinking about?

Matt: I personally think search is here to stay. I think search will evolve, like it’s been evolving since the first browser launched 12 years ago or whatever it is now browser engine, sorry. I think what we are going to see, and what I’m hearing is that social is becoming bigger and bigger. People are spending more and more time on these networks, using these tools the social and bookmarking tools. I think there’s been a lot of talk about the browser. Is the browser the best way for people to access information? We’re seeing mobile… I’m not going to say 2009 is the year of mobile, I think that’s been said and beaten.


Matt: I think every year has been the year of mobile for the last three or four years. But with the iPhone and the whole application, we’re seeing companies grazing massive amounts of money with the sole purpose to build apps for social networks, be it Slide, or Gigya. We see the iPhone change the way we think, and more so not just the iPhone, but Smart Phones change the way we think about local search. I was actually sitting down with the only guy I know who has the word ‘Keyword’ in his title last night, Mike Grehan.

We were looking at the Open Table application for the iPhone. It is absolutely amazing. It tells you where you are in about two seconds, and you press the button that says ‘Find me a Table’ and it tells you every open table within a certain predefined radius, and the times that they are available in all of these restaurants. That’s a game changer. There’s no browser there, so I think search is going to evolve. The way we communicate with the data now is still a little bit clunky. It’s not all that accessible at all times. That’s going to change. I think we are always going to be online at some point. It’s already happened, so it’s not that far away.

And with that, the sky is the limit. Anyone getting into the space… What I always find, people that join the space, there’s not that much catch up to do. It’s great to have a little bit of history as to what used to be the case, and how engines used to return information to the searchers. I wouldn’t call it irrelevant, but at the same time, it’s not that relevant.

You can come into this space having very little background on search and succeed tomorrow, because of innovation. The way we search today is different from the way we searched last year, and is going to be different from the way we search next year.

I’m looking forward to all of the changes that are coming, big and small. I look forward to the days that there are more players than just school in the space. I look forward to finding out what happens with Yahoo! and Microsoft. I look forward to finding out what happens with the new tools, what new tools are going to be available to us by the end of the year. So, it’s an exciting space. Like I said, there’s nothing consistent about it, and the only thing certain is that it will look different tomorrow than it does today.

Mark: That’s well said. It is a ton of fun, and you’ve been really generous with your time. We want to thank you for taking the call this morning. We’ll talk to you again soon. I hope you don’t mind if we do a follow up with you.

Matt: That would be fantastic. I appreciate it, Mark. Thank you.

Mark: All right. Thanks.