Shari Thurow

MARK: We are speaking with Shari Thurow, the President of Omni Marketing Interactive, and a long time search usability person, who has been in search since the very early years. One of the things we are hoping to do is talk to you a little bit about what you were doing just before you got into search, what got you into search, some of the challenges along the way, and in the end talk about some of the new folks and how we can encourage them or the things they should think about doing.


MARK: So let’s back up a little bit. Dates and places are great; that’s what history is, it’s about people and events in time. So we would really love to dig back into your beginnings and if you can rewind and help us understand…

SHARI: Sure, I’ve been doing website design since 1995 and believe it or not, the first website I ever did was a search engine friendly website. In fact, it is very difficult for me not to do a search engine friendly website. You have to specifically ask me not to do a search engine friendly website or else I will purposefully do it naturally. What happened was I built my first website for a very large school bus company. It kind of fell in my lap because I did all of their multi-media presentations; I also built their marketing database, so naturally the website fell in my lap. At that time as I was building it I encountered two people, one of them was Danny Sullivan, and one of them was John Audette.

MARK: Those are definitely two early birds.

SHARI: Oh yeah. So I read voraciously everything that they wrote, and I applied everything that they said, and it worked. So from the outset I’ve done search engine friendly design, and I haven’t looked back since because I understand how people search. Believe it or not, when it comes to search I’ve been doing that since 1990 because when I was a graduate student from my first masters degree I was required to take two library science classes; one of them in American English, and the second one in Japanese, because my first masters degree is in Asian studies in Japanese. So searching is just something I’ve been doing for years. The internet certainly has changed everything, so like I said I’ve never looked back. Ever since my first school bus company website that I did, and by the way it was fantastic. The results from it were phenomenal, so I was hooked.

MARK: It’s rewarding when the users are getting what they need and you’re ranking well in the engines for things that are important. There’s nothing like that.

SHARI: Yeah. To this day Danny Sullivan and John Audette, not only do I consider them my mentors and I continue to think of them as my mentors, they’re also my friends. It’s not often that your mentors and your colleges are your friends but this is one case where it certainly is true, and I just love those guys. There is no other way to put it; I just love them and I deeply respect them, and there is not one day of my life that I ever regret not meeting them. I love those guys.

MARK: Wow that is really nice to hear. I like both of them as well. So now we’re in ’95, you’ve got the bus site up and running, let’s fast forward a little bit and start talking about some of the dynamics as the backdrop started to change. So, Yahoo was pretty important, you had to pay attention to Yahoo, and Alta Vista was out there doing great things, and WebCrawler, etc.

SHARI: Infoseek was my favorite engine.

MARK: Yes, I bet you loved how you could hit refresh five seconds later and see how your rankings changed.

SHARI: I loved that.

MARK: (Laughs)

SHARI: But here is what I think also makes me different from most search people, I am a searcher. So if I see a search result that I can’t stand, first of all I let the search engines know, “I can’t stand this search result, it’s a bunch of malarkey.” So I think not only like a search engine optimizer, I think like a searcher, “What do I as a searcher want to see in search results.” I loved Infoseek not only because I could see my turn-around time with results very quickly, but I could also like-wise turn in search engine spam and bad results to Infoseek and equally see a fast turn-around time with that.

MARK: So what kind of things were you doing back then to build a search friendly sight?

SHARI: Do you want to know something, to be perfectly honest; I’m not doing very much different than I did before. Having a search engine friendly website is building it from the very beginning, so that your content is easily found. Not just by web search engines but also your content should be easy to find with site search engines, and your content should be easy to find with browsing. Things like categorization, things like using keywords, especially keywords at the top of the page, validating what you say in your page content with your meta tag descriptions and your meta tag keywords, making sure that your graphic images are descriptive, those things I still do.

MARK: Yeah, so that on-page stuff today is still valid.

SHARI: It’s always valid, and it always will be valid. It’s something that’s not going to change. That’s why I sometimes get very frustrated with these so called, “We’re new and we’re advanced” and “We’re hot and we’re young.” Ok, “But you’re also very young and you’re very ignorant.”

MARK: (Laughs) How do you really feel about that?

SHARI: Oh yeah, because the things that worked thirteen or fourteen years ago still work now, and if you focus on the foundation instead of playing this stupid cat and mouse game, that’s when I think sites get better results. The one thing that has definitely changed over the years is I’m not as afraid to tell people, “You need to change your site.” Telling people that they have to change their site hasn’t changed, but my confidence level in telling people that has changed significantly. I like to look at it like a car, if there is something wrong with the engine you fix the engine, if there is something wrong with the engine you don’t get a paint job and get leather seats.

MARK: Right.

SHARI: That’s what a lot of these changes that people are suggesting are. They’re very cosmetic. They’re doing everything except solving the problem. If the site is not search friendly then you’ve got to change the site. Sometimes it’s a major overhaul, sometimes it’s not, and you have to have the cojones to say that to people. That’s something I’m not afraid to say anymore because I have 13-14 years worth of data, and 13-14 years worth of results to prove my point. I also have the academic community backing me up as well as the search engines themselves backing up my methodologies, so my confidence level has increased significantly and to be honest with you, I’m not very impressed with the younger batch search engine optimizers, in fact I would say I’m quite disappointed. There is only one person in the younger crowd that I have 100% confidence in that’s Adam Audette. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree does it?

MARK: Right, right.

SHARI: Adam Audette is the only younger guy right now that I think gets it.

MARK: So what kind of things have you seen? When I refer to things, I mean obstacles that you’ve seen in a person’s site that make you want to tell them, “Hey, you’ve got to redo your site.” What are some of the common obstacles you bump into?

SHARI: It’s absolutely the information architecture. The skeleton of a website is its information architecture. An information architecture is not something you can just go into and make a few changes here and there. An information architecture is how things are categorized, how things are labeled, how things are grouped, and how things are prioritized. These are decisions that are made early in the design process. First of all most people that do this sort of categorization, and this is website usability professionals, don’t think about search engines, site search engines or the commercial web search engines. In fact they tend to blow them off. They see the use of the site search engine as a failure of site navigation, and that’s an unfortunate way to view things because one of the biggest complaints that people have about websites is that site search engines are not accurate. Well, site search engines aren’t accurate because people don’t label and categorize and group things in a way that makes sense to their users in using the user’s language. So usability experts are certainly part of the problem. However, on the flip side search engine optimization professionals have little or no background in website usability. I find both of them equally troubling because both groups are putting blinders on to something that they shouldn’t be putting blinders on. I understand that website usability is a discipline in and of itself, but that shouldn’t stop anybody. I don’t think learning is a bad thing, and that’s one of the reasons I have a lot of confidence in Adam Audette, because he does take the time to really look at information architecture and study it. But I don’t see any other SEO professionals doing that; what I see is a lot of lip service. One of my dreams is to see other SEO professionals sit on a panel with Jacob Neilson and see how they can stand sitting next to him and talking about website usability. I would find that very entertaining to be honest.

MARK: (Laughs)

SHARI: Both groups have a problem with the blinders. Like I said, I find it troubling. I don’t have that problem but I see other people having it. In fact, if there was an SEO firm offering website usability services I could tell you right now I wouldn’t hire them because there is such a lack of knowledge about website usability among SEO professionals; it’s really sad. There seems to be an over-emphasis on link-building and the reason that there is an over-emphasis on link building is people are seeing that off-the-page criteria as more important than on-the-page criteria, and every usability expert on the planet would laugh in your face if you don’t think on-the-page criteria and off-the-page criteria don’t have to validate each other. Of course they do; it’s part of the user experience. The other reason that a lot of SEOs emphasis off-the-page criteria is that they can’t change the website. So a lot of SEO professionals are forced to go outside of the website because they can’t change it. Unfortunately website owners have created that market. I’m one of the few SEOs that has the cojones to tell a website owner, “You need to change your site.”

MARK: So what other kinds of things do you observe other than information architecture, and that’s an important one obviously, but there are lots of things that can be wrong with a site to make you say, “It’s time to change your site.”

SHARI: Well, I think that there is an over-emphasis on design elements such as flash, any kind of multi-media whether it’s audio or video, any kind of interactivity. Most interactivity on web pages, including invisible CFS layers and DHTML and all of that fun stuff that I like to do as a designer, a lot of people don’t realize that adding that stuff and adding that stuff and not doing it for a good reason can actually hurt a sites search engine visibility. I’m not just referring to Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft; I’m also referring to site search engines. So there is such an emphasis on using this interactivity without people taking a look at the long term affects that it’s going to have. So people jump on the bandit wagons, people jump on Ajax, people jump on Flash, and they think, “Ok, this is going to be so popular that I don’t have to worry about the other on-the-page criteria,” when in fact you do.

MARK: So you’re not advocating motion for the sake of motion.

SHARI: No, I would never do that. There are sites that I’ve done entirely in Flash because the functionality of the site required Flash, but I also was realistic about the site’s search engine visibility. Also, we’ve had to do sites in flash because it was not only going to be a website it was also going to be available in a kiosk in a museum. So, yes, we had to use flash, but we had to know, what are the limitations, what are the things we can do, what are the things we can’t do. I love flash. Give me a good usability reason to use flash and I’ll do it. I really like Flash, and I really like interactivity but you have to know when and how to use it and also how it will effect search engine visibility and if it’s going to affect it are there other ways?

MARK: Have you looked into SilverLight yet?

SHARI: Yeah (heavy sigh).

MARK: You’re not excited about its potential?

SHARI: No. (Laughs)

MARK: Well that was a short subject. So one of the common problems you see is a poor information architecture, and you also see some design elements just for the sake of having a design element as opposed to building a really good case as to why to have them. What other kinds of things do you see that make you want to recommend a company do to redo their website?

SHARI: Well, just content.

MARK: They don’t have enough or it’s not good?

SHARI: They don’t have content that their users really want. One of the many things we do is field interviews before we even create a site, before we even create an information architecture, before we even create an interface, and we find that people want to put things on their website and users don’t want them, they don’t care. You could waste a lot of time and money putting things on a website that are just going to stand their looking cool for cool’s sake. Every time I have to put a mission statement on a site I cringe.

MARK: Yeah (laughs).

SHARI: A lot of people will spend time and money developing content that says “Look how wonderful I am,” instead of “This is how I can help you, and this is what I can do for you.”

MARK: It also seems like to me with the things you’ve mentioned, not only were they problems 10 – 13 years ago, but they’re also the same problems I’m seeing today.

SHARI: Oh exactly, that’s why I’m laughing that some people think search engine optimization is so different now with blogs. No they’re not. A blog is a website just like any other website saying a lot of the same rules that apply to standard websites apply to blogs. A lot of the standard rules that apply to social media websites apply to regular websites. So people are sitting here trying to look for the latest and the greatest thing in search engine optimization, and its borderline silly.

MARK: I think getting back to the link comment, Google comes up with this algorithm that has this fairly effective way of rating links and it influences their search rankings, and over time they gain market share… you know it was six or seven years ago when the engines were kind of in a dead heat; three major players sharing almost equal market share…

SHARI: Right.

MARK: …MSN, Yahoo, and Google. That was the last time that happened and it’s been a Google party ever since, so…

SHARI: I would disagree with that assessment.

MARK: Of search traffic?

SHARI: Not search traffic but I’ve worked on many sites, and I do mean this year and last year and even the previous year, where the site owner did not have to worship at the altar of the Google Gods.

MARK: Yeah, I agree with you there. I guess what I’m getting at is I think the emphasis that you’ve heard about on links is being driven by Google’s popularity as a search engine, as that popularity increases and people are starting to understand how that link influence takes place. I don’t think we would have ever had link farms if that wouldn’t have happened.

SHARI: I think link development would have happened whether Google exited or not, Google just happens to be the search engine, and Serge and Larry just happened to be the two gentlemen that came up with the whole concept of page rank, and by the way, I don’t know if you know this about me, that anybody that walks into my office and says the term “Page Rank” or “PR” that doesn’t mean press releases gets squirted with a major squirt gun, because page rank is fundamentally flawed, and I saw that back in ’99. Page rank is supposedly based on how scholars’ site work, and how scholars’ site work and site resources is far more valid than how the general public sites resources, hence the development of link farms, and add agencies, and networks, and all that stuff. So if people would use link development as it was intended, we wouldn’t have these problems, but people are so desperate for search positions that like I said all of this stuff is developed. It’s a shame but there is not much that I can do about it except trying to focus on building links the ways it was intended to be focused on.

MARK: Oh, and what is that?

SHARI: If I am going to link to a site, I’m going to link to a site whether they link back to me or not. I’m going to link to and site information because I think the information I’m sighting is credible, high quality, and unique. But I’m not going to require reciprocation; I’m not requiring third party or any other kind of endorsement. That’s how link development should be done. That’s now how it’s actually done, but that’s how it should be done.

MARK: So that describes a good case for how to create a really high-quality outbound link. Do you do anything for inbound links, or do those just happen outside of any influence from you?

SHARI: No., you have to have high-quality unique content. So you do have to have link worthy content, and you have to make it very easy for people to link to you; in other words you need to have a very user-friendly website and yes, you do have to call attention. Sometimes people aren’t aware of some of the content, so yes, things like contacting people one on one directly is something we certainly do. Web directories, niche directories, absolutely still do that sort of thing. I am more interested in quality than quantity, to be perfectly honest.

MARK: Sure, I think a lot of us are, and relevancy is important; it’s not just important to search engines.

SHARI: Yeah, because I have to think about my sites users. I’m not going to link to content that they’re not going to find useful, and I’m going to find holes that our other website owners might have in their content that’s non-competitive. I will certainly contact people like that. Link development has always been one of these tedious processes, and it is a process. It’s not something you do once and you never do again. It’s part of an ongoing marketing process. I don’t think it’s a search engine optimization skill, I think it’s just a website marketing skill. But I don’t spend a great deal of emphasis on more than what I just said. To me I think Eric Ward is the most knowledgeable and professional link development person I know.

MARK: I would agree with you on that; he’s amazing.

SHARI: He has a very common sense approach, and he has a very high-quality approach to it too, so I love working with him. He is another person that I am constantly learning from. Blogs? Yawn. Most of them are abandoned within six months anyway.

MARK: So you met Danny and John very early on, and then time starts moving forward. What year was that?

SHARI: I first started my web design in ’95. Sometime between ’96 and ’97 is when I met them both, and by “meet them both” I mean online. The first time I met Danny Sullivan in person, somebody had to introduce him because I had never seen him before, and vice-versa.

MARK: (Laughs) That’s funny, when was that?

SHARI: That was at his first search engine conference that he gave.

MARK: November of ’99 in San Francisco?

SHARI: Yep. I was an original conference speaker, and to this day I still do search engine friendly design by myself. I’ve earned that position and I will maintain it as long as I can. That was funny; I had to have somebody from John’s company introduce us. I really didn’t know what he looked like.

MARK: Who was that? Do you remember some of the folks from John Audette’s company?

SHARI: I remember a lot of people from John Audette’s company, in fact some of them I trained.

MARK: Do you mind doing a little name dropping?

SHARI: No, I think they would get angry with me if I let out that I trained a lot of them.

MARK: Oh, Ok. Again, one of the purposes here is to understand the history of SEO and all of the early people. Not everyone is an early adopter. There are a lot of folks who got into the business after ’95 or after 2000, or after 2005. So anyone who had activity before the year 2000 would certainly fall into that “pioneer” or “early adopter” arena. We want to identify all of them.

SHARI: I’m very comfortable saying that I have trained a lot of SEO companies, either through conferences, or one on one training, or they’ve actually hired me or used me as a consultant. I think you would be very surprised at the people that I’ve trained in search engine optimization; some very well known names, but as I said I think they would be very uncomfortable with me name dropping in that respect. I can live with that. I’ve trained some really good people.

MARK: So let’s keep moving forward then. The industry is growing, more and more people are showing up, there are a couple hundred people at that first conference, the conferences continue obviously today there are a lot more people involved in this than there were back then. What kinds of things have you seen change between then and now?

SHARI: Well, there is more of an interest in this topic. I think people are finally beginning to see that search is something that has to be a process in a company. It’s not something that you relegate to an SEO person and that SEO person is a stand-alone person. That SEO person has to work with the people in advertising. He has to work with the technical people. He has to work with the public relations people. All of this has to be integrated into the entire online marketing process. So it’s very nice to see that. However, I think the challenges are still the same. When you look at these conferences there are three types of people in the audience. There tends to be technical people, there tends to be marketing people, and there tends to be management people. One of the most difficult things about being a conference speaker is making all three of them happy. Management people don’t want to know how to do things, they just want to make sure it gets done, and that you can do it. Whereas technical people like to know how to do things, they don’t want to know why; they just want to know how to do it, “Show me how to do it and then leave me alone.” Marketing people want to be able to understand how to do it and if you can do it. So it’s hard to sit there and speak and listen to other panelist’s as well, because some people appeal very much to the management people; these are people who are very good at showing case studies. There are some people in technical that are wonderfully gifted technical people that talk over everybody else’s head and they don’t realize they have just lost have the audience, because not everybody in the audience is a technical person. At the same time, there are technical people in the audience and you have to show them that you know what you’re talking about. Those types of audience members still exist. That hasn’t changed in the ten years that I’ve been doing conferences.

MARK: Can you site anything that’s different between then and now?

SHARI: It’s a negative thing; I think people are more into the hype, which I find disappointing. Instead of focusing on having a strong foundation because the foundation really hasn’t changed very much in ten years. The emphasis on social media, the emphasis on blogs… ok, blogs and social media, they’re all websites. They’re all websites so the same rules apply. Multimedia is more popular now than it was five or six years ago, but the same rules still apply. I’m not going to say things that you want me to say just because you want me to say them. I don’t see much difference. You can find a marketing person and an advertising person to say, “Well social media is more hot right now.” Ok, so what?

MARK: What do you think I want you to say? (Laughs)

SHARI: Because I see it all the time and hear it all the time, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve unsubscribed to a lot of search engine news sites because I’m not learning anything new.

MARK: Ok. I wasn’t trying to lead you anywhere. I simply wanted to get your perspective on the history. For example, other folks have noted some changes in the last ten to fifteen years, so I wanted to see if you noted any of those. It sounds like not.

SHARI: They’re all changes in hype.

MARK: “It’s all the same with a little bit of hype.” Ok.

SHARI: It’s just hype.

MARK: But I’m not trying to lead you to a certain destination, ok?

SHARI: Ok. The only real change I’ve seen is hype.

MARK: Ok. Again, the purpose here is that I’m trying to identify people that need to be included in the history of SEO because they had worked in the industry early on. Prior to 2000 there is a whole section of interviews for that timeline… That’s my only purpose for asking the question.

SHARI: Mk. Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman, Jill Whalen, Dana Todd, Catherine Zeta, Eric Ward of course, are all good people.

MARK: Thank you, thank you, and I’m not trying to be argumentative. I just want you to know I don’t have a bias here. I’m trying to tell a story because when people come to their first conference they think, “Who are all these people? What’s been going on here?” I want to be able to give them a resource that they can go to and learn who has been at this a long time. Then I am going to do another wave between the years 2000 and 2005, and then social media starts showing up; that’s a different group of people. I just want to get all of that documented and organized in a way that helps people step into what it is that we’re doing and the people involved in it more easily.

SHARI: Yeah, but here’s where I’m different, social media does not impress me. In all of the stuff, “Social media is hot,” “long tail is hot,” this that and the other thing. Social media was addressed in the 90’s so it’s been repackaged into a different thing, so what? It’s still the same concept. User generated content is nothing new.

MARK: Yeah, I totally agree.

SHARI: Long tail is nothing new. In fact, the whole thing about long tail… I’ve been observing this very quietly because I can remember back in 1998, you know I do a lot of medical websites, and I can remember people complaining, “Oh, these aren’t a popular term, these aren’t a popular term. I don’t want to target this term. This isn’t a popular term. This isn’t a popular term.” And now all of a sudden long tail is hot. It’s just funny to hear how things change mostly because of hype, when in fact a lot of these methodologies have been done for years, and years. And the people who have been doing them for years and years, have years and years of data. Chris Sherman is somebody who is amazingly, amazingly brilliant, and I love to hear his take on social media. Very quietly, I remember this at one of the Search Marketing Expo conference people were talking about all of this wonderful social media thing, and then he said very quickly and very politely, “Oh yeah, you remember GeoCities? Remember how well that did?” And I of course made an idiot of myself because I practically spit out what I was drinking, I was laughing so hard, but he was right. GeoCities was done a long time ago. How is it different now than it was then, other than that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can create a blog? It’s all user generated content. It’s great to listen to Chris Sherman. I think a lot of people have a perspective that I don’t agree with because a lot of the optimization strategies you’re seeing now weren’t done back in the 90’s. And I just remembered something that is different, what’s different now is advertising. Because I remember when Overture first came out, I didn’t think it would last.

MARK: Right, the idea of paid advertising.

SHARI: Well, pay for placements.

MARK: Right.

SHARI: A pay for placement search engine. I didn’t think a pay for placement search engine would last, but when it was repackaged as an advertising thing that’s something I certainly didn’t expect. It was perfect. It’s brilliant. So, search engine advertising is certainly something that I’ve seen a big change in.

MARK: And it does bring on a whole different audience and group of people with that.

SHARI: Oh yeah. Another thing that has changed is awareness over the years. Web Analytics; I was an early adopter of Web Analytics. In fact, back in ’97 I was one of the first people to use WebTrends. When I first discovered WebTrends I thought it was one of the greatest discoveries known to mankind. I never used position checking software to measure the success or failure of any of my search engine campaigns. What I used to measure the success or failure of it in the very beginning was what the Web Analytics data was telling me. It’s nice to see more robust, nicer, cleaner Web Analytics packages. Unfortunately some of the best ones are too expensive for most people, but I do like Google Analytics; they’ve done a very good job.

MARK: Yes, agreed.

SHARI: So awareness, there you go. Awareness has increased lots since the ‘90s. Some of it for the better, and I say web analytics is an area where I think it’s better.

MARK: Cool. So if someone is new, stepping into this world of search engine optimization and site usability, etc, how would you guide someone through the first year as they start to learn how to become good at this?

SHARI: Oh boy, um, the first thing I would say is “You’ve got to learn to ignore the vast majority of people who consider themselves experts,” because I do not believe most of them are experts, and, “Really focus your attention on people who are.” I haven’t changed a bit when I say that I believe Danny Sullivan is one of the most gifted persons, and most knowledgeable people about search engines. Listen to Danny Sullivan. Listen to Chris Sherman, absolutely. And focus on what they write and what they feel is important. And really listen to them too. Not just jumping on a band wagon, really listening to them. In fact, that’s what I do when I have to train a new SEO, I purposely take them to a conference where Danny and Chris are. Whether it’s their conference or a conference that they’re speaking at, because I want them to learn the same way I learned.

MARK: So you would recommend also attending the conference. Reading up over at SearchEngineLand and Sphinn, or wherever Chris and Danny are hanging out?

SHARI: Yes, and actually talking to them. I mean, I’m not adverse to hiring those two gentleman to have them train. Here I’m being self promotional, but I do believe this that’s one thing you learn about me very quickly is that it’s very hard to get me to endorse something or someone, so I know there are a lot of SEO books out there, I think most of them stink. Do I think mine is one of the best? Yes. It’s also one of the first.

MARK: What is the name of your book?

SHARI: It’s called Search Engine Visibility, and the one that is coming out we don’t have the title yet, but it’s basically about search meeting website usability and how they’re very much related.

MARK: Where can people find your book?

SHARI: We’re still working on it. I have a co-author this time.

MARK: I mean the first one.

SHARI: Search Engine Visibility? The second edition has a lot more detail in it because back in 2001-2002 when I wrote the first one, even though one of my clients is one of the biggest video search engines, video wasn’t popular back then, so I left a lot of stuff out in the first book. So I talk more about Multimedia and stuff, but having that foundation is so important. Somebody who is new at this needs to focus on the foundation and getting a strong foundation. So understanding keywords, understanding copy writing, understanding that there are a lot of tools out there, but just because you know how to use a hammer doesn’t mean you know how to build a house. So, you need to have somebody who can use tools, but has to know how to use them well.

MARK: So if someone is reading or listening to this interview and they say, “Wow, I’d really like to get Shari’s book.” Where can they go get that?

SHARI: They can go on Amazon, Borders, or Barnes and Noble. It’s very easy to get it.

MARK: And the title one more time.

SHARI: Search Engine Visibility. And there will be a third edition. Right now 99% of what is in the second edition is fine. It’s about having a strong foundation, and that is where the focus needs to be.

MARK: Any other tips you could recommend for folks getting started?

SHARI: Take a website usability class from people who know what they’re talking about. So I’m talking about Jared Spool, Jacob Nielson, Erik Shaffer, Peter Morville; people like that, Lou Rosenfeld. Learn from people who are good, not from people who are necessarily popular. Just because you’re popular doesn’t mean you’re good at something; sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. So understanding search, to me, begin with people who absolutely know what they’re talking about. Same with usability, begin with people who absolutely know what they’re talking about. I think Peter Morville’s book, Ambient, is one of the best search books ever written, but a lot of people aren’t familiar with it.

MARK: Right, maybe we can help change that a little bit.

SHARI: He and Lou Rosenfeld wrote Information Architecture for the World Wide Web; wonderful, fabulous book.

MARK: So in the world of search there are a lot of credible companies out there. You’re right, there are also a lot of companies that don’t really know what they are doing, or don’t have the experience behind them like the companies that have been around for a long time. Do you know of some other credible places people could get started working with other companies in the area of search?

SHARI: My standards are that high. I wouldn’t deviate from that. I’m not impressed with most of the search engine optimization blogs out there. Like I said, I’ve unsubscribed from almost all of them.

MARK: Ok. If there is nothing else to add I want to thank you for your time, you’re very generous.

SHARI: I know I told you things that other people didn’t say. (Laughs) I just think that’s funny.

MARK: No, that’s totally fine. Your perspective was actually the most important thing on my agenda today. So if I sounded like I was trying to guide you down a certain path I really apologize for that.

SHARI: No, all I’m trying to say is that I’m somebody who says, “When you go after high-quality, you go after high-quality.” High-quality is not necessarily the most popular thing on the planet. I know who the search experts are and there are not very many of them.

MARK: And you don’t want to lend any extra low kudos to the ones that you do like right now; you could do it.

SHARI: Adam Audette, and I’m totally serious. He is one of the few people that I think gets it.

MARK: What does he get?

SHARI: That search and usability are completely related.

MARK: Oh I see. Ok.

SHARI: He gets it. He understands the building blocks. I would say that the vast majority of search engine professionals do not understand the building blocks and do not understand how to incorporate them. Search engine optimization is part art, part science. You are going to have people who are good techy people but aren’t very good copy writers. You are going to have people who are good copy writers, but don’t have technical skills. There is a person that gets all of those things. Not to the degree that an individual technical person will get, and those are your best search engine experts.

MARK: So maybe it’s possible that someone has built a very usable site that has really good visitor comments and a great experience, and it’s also very searchable, but perhaps you just haven’t met them or worked with them before?

SHARI: Maybe, but in the usability area and in the search area, I get around. So yeah, it’s possible, but doubtful.

MARK: So you’re saying that there are no websites that have been built by someone that you don’t know, unless Adam, Chris, or Danny built it, that’s usable and searchable.

SHARI: It’s possible but I doubt it. Usable and searchable? Yes, I know some of these sites…

MARK: There are over a hundred million websites and certainly more than what Danny, Chris, and Adam have built are usable and searchable, right?

SHARI: I don’t think you and I have the same definition of what usable is.

MARK: Yeah, that’s possible. What is your definition of usable?

SHARI: Basically Peter Morville’s definition of usable.

MARK: For audiences, listeners, and readers who haven’t heard of that what does that mean?

SHARI: Usability is not, “I can use it.” It’s not your personal opinion of, “Oh, I can use this website.” It’s an objective third party is actually sitting down and measuring the effectiveness. You know, are people able to accomplish their desired tasks? If they’ve never seen a website before, how quickly are they establishing a good mental model of the site? What is their recognition? What is the error prevention? What is the user confidence? This is something that usability people measure all of the time. Most of the time when people think usability, they think from their own heads, “I can use this site, therefore, it’s good.” Some very popular sites aren’t user friendly. I mean look at Microsoft, please. Microsoft is not what I would consider a very user friendly website, but they don’t have very much competition, which is good for them, but not good for users.

MARK: Right, so when I hear you say, “Most people don’t get it,” I agree. But I also think…

SHARI: Usability is not about what you think. It’s about what other people think and what they do, and it’s being measured constantly. SEO is a process, well usability is a process too. If a site can be evaluated by people like Jacob Neilson, Eric Shaffer, and Jarred Spool, as well as be spider friendly in terms of Google, Yahoo, Ask, and Microsoft, then yes that’s a wonderful website. I don’t think there are that many websites that could stand that test. That’s my goal. Those are the standards I have. Are they going to be attained? No, because a lot of people don’t have the time, they don’t have the budget, they don’t have the patience, they don’t have the skills, but never-the-less that’s my goal; to make sites as user friendly as possible.

MARK: That’s an excellent goal.

SHARI: Usability is a term that is over-used and misused in this industry a lot. It’s not your personal perspective, because database people certainly think the databases they build are user friendly, of course they built it, but put a database in front of people that have never used it before and see how well they use it. That is usability.

MARK: Right, and usability was around before the web.

SHARI: Oh, much longer. Information retrieval in search engines were here long before Google existed. Believe it or not, those are the people I respect. The people who have been doing information retrieval long before Google came along. Let me put it this way, the more I study this field academically, the more respect I get from Librarians, Library Scientists, and Information Scientists. They might not know some of the things I know because I’m doing things on the web, but in terms of knowledge about information retrieval I’m a rookie compared to them. That’s why I think taking one class, a really good Introduction to Information Sciences class, I think a lot of people in this industry would see how much they don’t know and how much they can learn to make better websites. I’m optimistic about people in my field but it’s more in individuals than big companies, because I think the people who are best at this industry aren’t people who work for big companies. I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with the bureaucracy at all these big firms. They need time to do research and development, and I don’t tend to see that in the big firms, I tend to see that in the smaller to medium size firms; and they have more flexibility, and I love to see and hear what they have to say, because I certainly don’t know everything, but I have very high standards, and I don’t want to lower them.

MARK: And I’m not going to ask you to.

SHARI: So that’s why I’m saying, “I don’t say what everybody else says just because other people want to hear it.” The most user friendly website that I know of is one that people have probably never even heard of, but it doesn’t matter that other people haven’t heard of it, the site kicks butt.

MARK: Exactly.

SHARI: So I’m very happy about that. I hope I helped, I mean, like I said, I don’t expect people to like what I have to say, but that’s what I have to say.

MARK: OK, well did we leave anything out?


MARK: Again, I do appreciate your time, and thank you for your contribution. The site is, and it’s a lot of fun, and I think it’s going to help a lot of people.


MARK: Alright, bye.