John Andrews: An Atypical Interview (SEMpdx Searchfest 08)
John will be speaking on “Search Marketing (SEO) & Your Business Strategy” at Searchfest which will take place on March 10th, 2008 at the Portland Zoo. Purchase your Searchfest 08 tickets now.
John Andrews is one of the smartest, most perceptive people in search marketing. When I got the chance to interview him, I didn’t want to serve up the typical softball questions that are the staple of most search marketing interviews (including mine). I wanted to ask him questions that were a bit more conceptual and philosophical than the industry norm, and give John the opportunity to speak out on some topics that he might not have a reason to blog about.
1) Please give us an overview of the talk you plan to give at our SEMpdx Searchfest event in March.
I follow the consultant model in my business, rather than an agency or practice model. That means I focus strategically on those aspects of search marketing (and competitive webmastering) that bring business success rather than simply SEO success. I believe that a business looking to succeed in search marketing is actually looking to succeed online in general, not just gain more search traffic. Unfortunately, many businesses don’t have that general online success model worked out yet, and their SEO efforts fail to perform cost-effectively even if they succeed based on SEO metrics alone.
Fortunately, the same knowledge an SEO needs to achieve SEO success can be used by the business itself to refine the online success portion of the overall Internet marketing equation. This can be done at the same time, and with relatively little incremental cost, via the consulting model. I hope to demonstrate that for the Search Fest audience, by showing how working effectively with an SEO at the strategy level can guide you towards overall online success, while simultaneously empowering you to effectively manage your SEO engagement and empowering your SEO to succeed on your behalf.
2) How do your client communications differ from your blog communications? What do clients think about your blog? Do you give a lot of “tough love” to your clients?
Interesting question, Todd. I wondered why you would ask this, but then I realized the blog at www.johnon.com might be the only exposure some people have to me. Maybe that demonstrates the power of the blog, and why blogs are not regular web sites but far more powerful vehicles for communication. I like to remind people that johnon.com is a personal blog, and not a corporate brochure.
The answer to your question is, I’m not a “tough love” person. Far from it. I love to teach and learn, and I have a great deal of patience for my customers and their employees. I learned long ago that the more I listen, the more I learn. I don’t have as much patience for the boardroom, though, especially when egos drive decision making or destroy good things out of blindness. If you look closely at my blog, you may notice I tend to highlight wrongs, misdirections, and hypocrisy. I don’t highlight people’s mistakes or inadequacies, but rather try and help people think through to see how things may actually be in reality even if some high-profile voice is preaching differently.
As for the question “What do clients think about your blog?” I am told very often how much they appreciate my blog as an honest view. I may be luckier than many Internet consultants because I have very smart customers who understand the web and Internet business. It is common for me to get emails from my customers after I make a blog post, where they expound on the issue I addressed and provide additional insights. You can’t always afford off-topic intellectual discussion in a business meeting or phone conference, but it is genuinely fun to discuss interesting topics with informed individuals.
Prior to Threadwatch I mostly stayed out of forums and the like, due to frustrations I felt dealing with those who quietly “managed the message” as moderators. People only see what gets published, and they want to believe it’s the whole story. If they are told “we only edit out obscenities” then they believe that what they see is what was written, perhaps sans obscenities. Sadly, that is far from the truth. Posts are edited and deleted as needed to manage discussions, and often there are strong agendas at work behind that process. Threadwatch started as a place that promised not to do that, and it didn’t. I was one of the first 3 editors of Threadwatch, and I didn’t even get any instructions for doing the job. It was simply assumed that we would only fix problems, delete obvious spam and bring questionable issues up for discussion. Everyone had a voice if they exercised it. If there were too many UFO posts the community complained to the posters before any moderators did.
It was odd the way Threadwatch closed, but understandable. Nick had gotten involved in Web 2.0 and needed to “play nice” if he wanted to succeed that way. Aaron took over Threadwatch but Aaron was all about getting along with everyone. Who could possibly placate everyone and still permit free and open discussion on Threadwatch, which had gotten very popular by then? You can just imagine the calls Aaron would get if someone on Threadwatch made a convincing case exposing some high-profile search marketer for some apparently-deceptive “issue framing” . I imagine the pressure was heavy. Did closing Threadwatch disenfranchise alternative viewpoints? Of course it did. Innovation is the enemy of the status quo, and inquisition feeds innovation.
Sphinn is a totally different community approach. I think people were hesitant to post at Threadwatch because they knew they would be held accountable for their positions and opinions. Consequently, the non-fringe stuff that did get posted was more carefully considered and therefore significant. Sphinn seems to encourage every idea, with the understanding that the good stuff would get voted up. While newbies would rather lurk at Threadwatch than post, newbies jump right in at Sphinn and post all sorts of stuff you’d never see on Threadwatch. Two very different models, which support very different sets of posters and readers.
4) I’m wondering if there is a philosophical underpinning to the criticisms that you’ve given out on your blog. What sort of event will cause John Andrews to speak out?
I try to only criticize when I feel it is necessary for the community as a whole. That means I will highlight authoritative statements that are incorrect, since they can be very harmful. I don’t mind if you say “I think this is true” but if you say “this is true” and you claim authority (by your position as head of search marketing research at BigSEOCompany or maybe via your self-proclaimed expert status) then you are open to criticism.
I may also highlight feigned benevolence, raising the question of whether or not the actual opportunity gained through that so-called benevolent action was calculated or may have been calculated. I often see companies building their business models on exploitation of their participants, while their marketing model involves “we built it for the people” stuff. We all need to eat, so some degree of that is just business, but when I consider it to be “obscene” I want to speak up about it.
I try to only speak out when I believe that helping people think will help them avoid being taken for a ride or, as is more common, help them avoid playing unwitting pawn in someone else’s game. I get that feedback all the time… people tell me “I would never have thought of that…thanks” .
5) Let’s say I open up my feedreader and find a high-profile blogger calling me out on his blog for saying / doing something (and the post has been Sphunn hot). From a reputation, management perspective, what’s my best plan of action in response?
It really depends on the blogger and the post. Most every time I have ever “called someone out” it has been defensible. If I am wrong, call me on it and I will gladly participate in the discussion. I’m not a bad guy and I am not working an agenda. Publicity is good as long as it is productive, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in the world noticing any given issue at any given time. But if you’re hiding something and someone highlights it, you probably need one of those public relations crisis management books. If was just a slip by someone in a bad mood or the result of a misunderstanding, be compassionate and contact the author, offering to work through whatever prompted the post. But if you’ve been targeted by someone working an evil agenda or trying to harm your reputation, you probably should check with your lawyer as well as your PR person.
When OpenDNS.org launched they were placing themselves into their customer’s businesses at the network router level, which gave them an amazing amount of power. They named themselves “OpenDNS” which played on the “open source” reputation (benevolent meritocracy). They suggested that they offered security from phishing attacks and independence from abusive ISPs that might try and monetize the data pipe. I knew that if I were given DNS management for business networks, I could make a fortune monetizing that knowledge and control, and I knew the customers would have very little awareness of how that might compromise their business intelligence or censor their Internet experience. In other words, businesses would be trusting these guys far more than they probably were aware. So I titled my post “Would you trust these guys?” with photos of the founders from their web site. I didn’t call them out for anything except maybe “can you tell us a little more about why we should trust you with such sensitive access in exchange for protection against the (rare?) phishing attack?” That should not have been hard to address, should it?
6) What is the value of attending search engine conferences?
I’m struggling with that one myself. If the boss is paying the tab, the value is tied to travel (always educational) and birds-of-a-feather socializing (great for finding the connections for the next job up the economic ladder, or fuel for the next request for a raise). But if it’s your own credit card, I don’t see the value unless you’re brand new to the field or you have strategic reasons for attending. In those cases you can do the business math and make your own decision.
Search conferences are like vacations for work. If you can afford to take a good enough vacation (3 weeks in Hawaii), it will be worthwhile for the way it refreshes and breaks the routine, helps you see the bigger picture of why you go to work each day, etc. But if you take vacation time to just cleanup the backyard jungle, was it really worth it? The right search conference at the right time can be like the 3 weeks in Hawaii, but not everyone can afford to make that happen.
7) How well are Google / Yahoo / MSN serving the needs of the typical (non-SEO) web surfer?
I think Google is the best thing since sliced bread for most people.
They don’t know what could be, and compared to what they have had before, it’s great. Yahoo! behaves more like a brand, catering to brand loyalty. I see far more default Yahoo! installations these days than anything else (new Dell computers, installs of Adobe Reader, etc) so Yahoo!’s reach is increasing. You’ll have to remind me of what MSN is. I’m not familiar with that one (joke).
8) Why do you brand yourself as a “competitive webmaster” ?
I wrote about that in my first blog post at www.johnon.com here.
Much of what we do as search optimizers is really just good web publishing, following proper technical and usability guidelines. But as search becomes the default access channel for Internet users, building for search (search friendly publishing, or SEO) is actually necessary.
And that is a self-reinforcing thing — the more search works for people, the more they use search. If every webmaster optimizes, they all need to optimize further to compete. So if you expect to be competitive today, you need to be search optimized. If tomorrow we have something new that is more important than search, we webmasters will need to accommodate that as well. In general, you are a competitive webmaster.
9) How can one best coach/guide children & teenagers into becoming future online entrepreneurs?
I think it’s natural, and we don’t need to coach it, but we should coach the character development that they need to survive (online or offline).
In sports psychology they recognize social and moral values as contributing to character development. Social values include teamwork, loyalty, self sacrifice, and perseverance. Moral values in this context have nothing to do with religion, but include honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect. Our society tends to focus on social values (in sports, that manifests as focus on performance and winning). But surviving real world challenges requires strong moral values as well as social values. I’d say, if society is already focused on the social values, we should add a little extra in the moral values department if we want our kids to survive.
10) Is privacy an illusion in a digital age? How can it best be protected?
I believe in privacy but in an information age, privacy is a barrier to profiteering. Unfortunately, if the political system is usurped by commercial interests, privacy will be demonized as well (the old “if you have nothing to hide, then why are you concerned about privacy?” bit). I think the IP address must be considered private information before we can have hope for online privacy. I believe Europe is finally moving in that direction. I suppose that means the U.S. may consider it in a hundred years or so.