“I wish I could say there’s a specific formula, but every team is different.”
Marshall Simmonds has worked with many different teams. He’s served as Chief Search Strategist for About.com, and he later carried that work over to The New York Times. He’s built unrivaled content networks, optimized for every search engine imaginable and has been in the game since 1997. He’s also the founder and CEO of Define Media Group, an audience development consulting firm that specializes in SEO, social media consulting and investment advisory. Marshall has consulted for brands like NHL.com, Gawker, ESPN International, TV Guide, ToysRUs, National Geographic and many more. Marshall is also based in Boise, ID.
Marshall was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email.
Jon Ball: You got into the world of search marketing in 1997. What got you into the industry, and how did your education at Portland State University inform your work?
Marshall Simmonds: I read a statistic on Internet.com that something like, “23172,2981973.80 new sites come online every week!” and thought that has the ability to make things very very confusing….if only there were a way to organize and search for specific sites. Voila! I hit Alta Vista, eventually found Danny Sullivan and started the I-Search Discussion List.
And how did your education at Portland State University inform your work?
PSU taught me communication skills, quite possibly the most important aspect to my career.
Let’s start with About.com. You were About’s search strategist from 1999-2011. About.com was a driving force in informational content, user-generated content and forum conversation. If you searched a topic, you’d find a guide on About.com. What was your strategy when you started working with About, and how did it change over those 12 years?
My efforts focused around finding a way to educate the 950 Guides world-wide and 450 staff located in NYC and SF on the basics of SEO. In addition I worked to develop a strategy for the business that leveraged the immense amount of content in the About.com corpus.
Our approach changed quite a bit as search has evolved so much in the past 14 years. Our efforts focus from 12 engines to 2 (and for the most part 1). Vertical search has taken off again as the industry fragments. Social obviously is a relatively new development we embraced. Throughout all this though the best practices remain constant – good content, well researched optimization and tagging.
You also oversaw search strategy for the New York Times, starting in 2005 and search referrals grew immensely in your time there. Did that come about when NYT acquired About.com? If so, how did your job change?
2005 was a stair step for publishing online. There was still trepidation about a full commitment and most major outlets were just then thinking about really jumping in. The Times, for the most part, had all the necessary pieces in place to blow out their traffic numbers. An incredible archive dating back over 150 years, a robust newsroom and edit team dedicated to 24 hour coverage of national and worldwide events, skilled tech, product and metric teams, and upper management support. My job was to coordinate efforts, educate, set the direction and quantify results. Basically set the NYT, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune (as well as About.com and its portfolio properties) on a path to internalize SEO operations. It turned out to be a fantastically challenging, educational and ultimately rewarding experience. In the 5 years I was at the NYTCo we grew search referrers to nearly 30% of overall traffic.
The search marketing industry is constantly changing, and the landscape of the SEO world can be kind of tumultuous these days. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen since you started in the late 1990s?
For starters watching the implosion of so many search companies in the 2000s. Keep in mind, at the peak, there were 12 engines we were actively optimizing for, submitting to and tracking results. Watching and experiencing the toppling of one service after another was an MBA lesson for the decade but also focused our efforts – not necessarily in a good way. Google, Bing (MSN/Live/whatevea’) and Yahoo were obviously left after the dust settled.
And then came Google’s Florida update in 2003.
That’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen in my career. It basically threw all the “the Internet is a level playing field” talk completely out the door and off the planet. Big brands, those that had staked claims to that point in time, once again reigned supreme. There was a lot more to it than that but ultimately the sites that survived were previously all household names or would soon be.
Panda is obviously another one of those table tossing moments – a massive, and needed, reset of the industry. As it turns out though Panda was/is simply an opportunity to push the SEO agenda and revise promotion strategies.
You’re the founder of Define Media Group, which broke off from the NYT a couple of years ago. You’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, and they have plenty of good things to say. It’s old hat for you to work with these brands, but what’s your mindset when you begin working on a big-brand marketing project?
Each big brand has unique challenges. Whether it’s content creation or workflow, available tech resources to execute on audit findings, or entrenched process. Our job is to understand strengths and weaknesses and what way to best leverage brand assets and expertise. Many times it’s simply aligning business objectives with existing core competencies. That’s a fancy way of saying getting the ship moving in the same direction and people talking the same language.
Too many times business units, within an organization, are working from different content management platforms referring to similar page elements in completely unique ways. Our task is to review and with minimal interruption to existing work flow procedures, course correct.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give a search marketer on his/her first big brand project?
It’s not about ranking, it’s not about links. Indexation and education are absolutely the first step in enterprise SEO.
How do you deal with the intimidation factor and make sure your work is worth the money?
Walking into the NYTimes was absolutely intimidating however I knew things they did not. Did I get beat up? Ohhhh yes. That editorial team, arguably the best in the world, took me to task many times. I learned though how to speak to hardened news professionals in a way that achieved my goals and that of the company while maintaining the voice of the publication. I wish I could say there’s a specific formula but alas every team is different. The endemic audience for the NYT is different from Gannet or the Washington Post. ESPN from SI. People from USWeekly. Thus the approach to work with these enterprise organizations is unique and must take into consideration available resources all the while maintaining editorial integrity.
Where is search marketing headed? What do you think the future looks like?
Mobile. That is all.
Why do you think Boise is such an attractive place for software, web and marketing firms?
Is it? I know and anyone who lives here knows Boise is a wonderful, fantastic place to live and work. However BSU’s computer department is very aware of the fact that CS students move out of the area to the Bay or NYC immediately after graduation. Boise is unable to compete with the salaries and attraction of big data projects like the tech-centric markets offer. This is a problem we’ll need to address if we are to retain talent.
What’s next for Marshall Simmonds and Define Media Group?
It’s a good question. At DMG we’re very good at growing smart. We know when it’s time to invest in technology and personnel. Define is at the point where demand for our expertise and services is at a premium where it no longer makes sense to turn business away. Ultimately we’ve decided to build more tools and hire for the first time in a long while. Our primary objective is to find someone who fits our unique company culture. This person must be a highly independent professional Internet marketer as well as reliable, responsible and competent.