Danny Sullivan on his passion for search

This article first appeared in issue 227 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

If you work on the web, you need to know about search. With more than 350 million registered domains and counting, the idea that “If you build it, they will come” has never rung so hollow; without a good understanding of how search works, you’re dead in the water. And if you want accurate, up-to-date information, Danny Sullivan is your man.

Sullivan has been reporting on search since 1996; 10 years after that, he founded the news and analysis site Search Engine Land. It’s since become the go-to place for learning about new developments in search – such as Google’s recent controversial ‘Search Plus Your World’ update, which was accused of favouring Google+ results over other social networks.

Sullivan was among the critics of the update. “I felt like these were search results that could help people better if they were including the other social networks,” he argues. “To me it felt much more self-promotional, not very relevant and surprised me.”

That said, he rejects the notion that this was a Google ‘conspiracy’ – and feels that even ‘cock-up’ is too strong, keen as ever to consider things from Google’s point of view. “My contacts at the company stressed that they’re building up a product that’s in its early stage and will get better,” Sullivan says. “While there are issues in terms of including the other social networks, they say that if they can get better deals then they can do it.” But does Sullivan believe them? He responds cautiously. “Some of what Google says is true,” he says. “It is early. They potentially are going to build this out to be better. And the other social networks do limit them in some ways. However, from what I’ve seen, I think there’s enough data that Google could have built this out as a more inclusive service from the start.

“I don’t think they were conspiring to keep the other social networks out,” he clarifies. “I just think they didn’t take the extra step to try and include them. Google seems to be in a place now where they look at Facebook and Twitter and are like: ‘Oh, you don’t want to provide us with data in a way that’s easy for us to access? Then we’re not going to bother worrying about trying to get it.’”

Staying objective

When writing on such issues, Sullivan’s tone is measured, his journalism fair and balanced – but he doesn’t hold back when something needs saying. Take his 26 January post: ‘Dear Google: Crappy Results Like This Don’t Give The Impression You Care About Search’. Referring to a search he’d done for ‘Rick Santorum’ which brought up some embarrassingly old-school spam, he wrote: ‘it appears Google is taking its eye off the ball of being a search engine’. But, given that these days everyone’s search results are personalised and unique, is it fair to attack Google on the basis of a single query?

Sullivan admits it can be tricky to stay objective. “I’m in a weird situation because I share a lot of content out, and I create a lot of content,” he says. “And so what happens with Search Plus Your World, for instance, is that I end up seeing myself a lot. My search results get filled with stuff I’ve written and that sometimes isn’t very relevant.”

For this reason, he has to be very careful about how he words things. “So with the Santorum thing for example, I actually took care not to say: ‘Aha, this is an example of Google+ being bad, or all of those results being bad’. What I said was: when you see things that are just so radically odd, it gives the impression that Google just doesn’t really care about search as much. Because they’ve got all this other hoopla going on about the Google+ things that are happening.”

Mainstream coverage

I react in horror to some of the things that I read about search in the mainstream media

But while Sullivan strives to be as objective and accurate as he can, he feels others don’t always try so hard. “I react in horror to some of the things that I read about search and search marketing in the mainstream media,” he exclaims. “If you see a large influential publication get something really wrong and then everybody starts citing it as fact, that’s the worst thing – it’s just a failure of journalism.” That said, though, in general he feels mainstream coverage of search is improving. “You used to see a lot more bad reporting on search, in particular when Google was growing,” Sullivan recalls. “Back then almost every publication acted as if Google was the best thing that ever existed, as if Google had invented every kind of search product that we use, and that there weren’t other options. Nowadays, though, that kind of bad reporting has become much rarer.”

Bad SEO advice

Danny Sullivan

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of bad SEO advice. “I don’t know that will ever go away,” says Sullivan. “Anybody can say they’re an SEO and anybody can email people and make cold calls. And they unfortunately do. It’s akin to anybody saying they can be your plumber or electrician and then just doing a terrible job.”

Some argue that’s a reason to introduce a system of certification for SEO professionals, but Sullivan reckons that realistically, that’s never going to happen. “It’s hard to certify people when the space that people are working in changes all the time,” he reasons. “It’s similar to saying: ‘We need certification of PR people because you have a range of people who are good at PR and bad at PR’. After all, SEO is very akin to PR: it’s not an exact science.”

For Sullivan, it comes down to a case of ‘buyer beware’. “I think the important thing to advise people is that if you ever get a cold call, that’s usually a bad sign,” he says. “People who are good generally aren’t running around calling people out of the blue and asking them for work. And the second thing is references. Find out who they work with, and what their clients have to say about their services.”

One way Sullivan is personally trying to raise standards within the field of search marketing is through his long-running series of international conferences, Search Marketing Expo (SMX), which he organises through Third Door Media, the company that owns the Search Engine Land website. SMX reached London in May this year, with keynote speakers including Google’s Amit Singhal, who’s spearheaded the search giant’s core ranking team since 2000.

“The idea behind the conference is to provide in-person advice and help to people in a way that they’re already used to getting from our website,” Sullivan explains. “Some people learn better by actually hearing people speak. And the UK is one of the largest search marketing markets out there, so it’s really important that we’re serving it.

“We also run SMX conferences in Australia, Canada, Germany, France and Sweden, while in the States there are four different events,” he adds. “And they’re continuing to grow and be more successful.”

The same goes for the Search Engine Land website – so much so that Third Door Media has recently launched a sister site, Marketing Land, “to cover internet marketing in the same way that we cover search marketing”.

Search is the second most important thing we do on the web, after email. And it continues to reshape itself

As the company continues to expand, Sullivan shows no sign of losing his passion for search. “It’s the second most important thing we do on the web, after email,” he enthuses. “And it continues to reshape itself every few months. This Google+ example is just one example of that, where you simply can’t say: ‘Oh, I understand it all, I’m done, there’s nothing more to read here.’ Because three months later you’re having to rewrite everything.

“When something like Search Plus Your World happens, people think: ‘I really need to understand this.’ They can turn to us and they know they can get that in-depth explanation.”

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