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Interview with Dan Thies of SEO Research Labs

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When you think of keyword research services, the name that often comes to mind these days is Dan Thies.

In developing his search marketing business, he was able to find a niche in keyword analysis and successfully progress that into search engine marketing and optimization training with SEO Research Labs and also a book, the Search Engine Marketing Kit.

In this interview with Dan, find out how he started out, his take on keyword research tools, common misconceptions about search engine optimization, search engines and SEO training.

Please describe your background and how did you get involved with search marketing?

I’ve been programming computers since I was a kid, maybe 9 years old. My first exposure to it was back in 1975, when I met a guy at Radio Shack who had built an Altair, and I used to ride my bike down there and fiddle around. So I’ve been riding this technology wave for a long time.

I got involved in marketing when I worked at Kinko’s, starting in 1988, and progressively got more into it – we had some really smart people there (hi, Dr. Z) who taught me a lot, and more importantly the organization gave me a good sense of business ethics and how you can compete in business without sacrificing your values.

That’s when I started doing a lot of the technical stuff too, data mining and analytics, that have also been helpful in understanding online marketing, SEO, PPC, and all this cool stuff you can do nowadays since almost everything is measurable.

Anyway, things at Kinko’s started looking a bit scary after a couple questionable career moves, and I was looking for a way to take what I’d learned into my own business. I started publishing a newsletter back in 1994 called the e-Marketing Strategy Letter. Paid subscriptions, a few hundred subscribers, and we all sort of rode onto the Internet together.

So my background is really all across the board, online and offline marketing. I got more involved with search engine marketing when I asked my subscribers about two possible book projects – one was on email marketing, almost finished, the other was on SEO, which I had also been doing for a long time. I think I got about 200 responses to my survey – 80% of them said do the SEO book first, so I did, and published SEO Fast Start in November 2001.

People really responded to the simple approach I laid out, in my articles and in the book, and it just took off, we sold thousands of downloads. The email marketing book was never finished, and that’s how I became known as a “search engine guy.”

I think it’s safe to say you’re an “old school” SEO. You’ve certainly developed a reputation as the “go to guy” for keyword analysis. But that’s not all you do. How did your focus on keyword research/analysis come about?

I’ve always felt like keyword strategy was the most important part of search engine marketing, just as targeting is really the most important factor in any kind of marketing. This seemed like an obvious point to me, but nobody was really dealing with it in any kind of disciplined way. So I started writing about it, and talking about it, and people again responded.

In fact, the response was amazing. A lot of the folks who had bought my book were asking for help with keyword research, so I took a small sampling of my customer list, and emailed 300 people with an offer to do keyword research reports for something like $129.95. Well, 120 click-throughs and about 30 orders came in the same day, and I realized that there was going to be quite a lot of demand for it, if we could do it well.

What surprised me was that SEO consultants were ordering the reports too. Jill Whalen ordered one, gave us a nice write-up, and talked Danny Sullivan into bringing me up to Chicago for SES in 2003, which is where I guess I really got permanently labeled as the “keyword guy.” I found out that the “real market” was web designers, agencies, SEM consultants, and others who wanted to outsource their keyword discovery work.

Which makes sense – most of these folks are bringing on a few clients a month, and that means they only did keyword research occasionally. The people on my team spend most of their time doing keyword research/discovery, so they are just better at it than you or I can be; we have too many other things to do.

The hard part of growing this part of my business is skepticism. If we tripled the price, people would be more willing to believe that real human beings are doing the work but if we charged 3x as much it would kind of defeat the purpose, which is to let the consultant save money and time, and focus on doing good work for their clients.

Do you see any difference between keyword research for PPC and organic SEO? The control you have over keyword visibility on PPC is so much greater than algorithmic search, does it make sense to take those differences into account?

For keyword discovery, no, there’s not much difference. But in applying it, there’s a world of difference. There are occasionally search terms (like “unlimited bandwidth” for a web hosting company, or “top search terms” for a keyword research company) that aren’t necessarily good or easy to reach via SEO, where PPC lets you get access them quite easily, but this is really just about tactics.

With either SEO or PPC, keyword discovery is just the first step. You have to take the search terms, all the little “modifier” words that come along with them, and weave them together into a broader search profile.

For SEO, this means mapping search terms to URLs, working search terms and modifiers into the copy, and building internal links to support all that. For PPC, this means coming up with a list of search terms, matching strategies (broad/phrase/exact), and mapping these to ad creatives and landing pages.

Tor Crockatt from Miva gave a great presentation at SES NYC last week, in our Search Term Research session. I’m working on a summary for my next newsletter, but she had a nice summary of the process for brainstorming and organizing a large number of search terms, based on what she calls “units of meaning.” Unfortunately, I’ll have to summarize it myself because nobody from SEW or SE Roundtable bothered to cover our session.

(Comment from Lee: Not all sessions can be covered at the entire SES conference by 3-4 volunteers, so be sure to check out Search Engine Roundtable, which publishes a schedule of sessions to be covered in advance of the conference.)

Doing PPC gives you a huge advantage over those who don’t, because you can find out which search terms work, what offers people respond to, and do so quickly. What you learn from PPC can be applied to copywriting, SEO strategy, etc. Doing the grunt work of analytics lets you set up feedback loops between SEO and PPC, so the results you get from each one can inform your strategy for the other.

The biggest problem I see with keyword strategy, with most web sites I look at, is targeting and relevance. Either they’re targeting the wrong terms, ignoring important opportunities, or they’re taking the visitor to the wrong page.

That could be the wrong page because it’s not focused for what the searcher said they wanted, because it doesn’t help the searcher clarify their intent on general search terms, or because it was written for search engines and not as an element of your persuasion/conversion strategy. There is always a way to accomplish SEO objectives without sacrificing the relationship and interaction with the visitor!

I actually offer a free 75-minute video on keyword strategy (http://www.seoresearchlabs.com/keywords.zip) from one of my training classes, that talks about a lot of the nuances, how PPC and SEO can work together, and all that.

Information in the search marketing world changes often and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Can you list 3 or 4 of the most common misperceptions that you run into?

I’ll give you a few

I don’t know if this is a misperception or just lack of creativity, but the fact that people think they need to pay for links strikes me as sheer madness. If you are promoting a web site online, that usually involves links, so I don’t understand why anyone would be looking for PR7 home pages where they can rent a (possibly worthless) link, instead of trying to find a profitable way to promote the web site and get some links at the same time.

Another big idea that relatively few people understand is the power of the web site itself. A well structured site, built to meet the information needs of the target audience, built to convert, in other words a well-planned web site, is a powerful tool for SEO and PPC success. Good design, copywriting, and information architecture all contribute to improving conversion rates, which means that you have more resources for all of your marketing, and that more different types of marketing will be profitable.

In SEO terms, the power of the web site is also largely ignored. Very few web sites that I look at leverage the power of their own internal links to improve rankings and broaden their search engine profile. I’ve got pages ranked for some very competitive search terms, purely from internal links. Not just for my site, but students as well, but you have to understand why it’s important and take action.

For example, in a shopping site, do the product pages within a category link to and support each other? If they don’t do this, you’re missing a huge opportunity for SEO and conversion, but go look at any shopping site. Chances are that they’re leaving the product pages to dangle out there at the edge of the site, with only one link to each one, a dead end.

I see people putting up 4,000 doorway pages to target individual cities and towns, when they could have one page for each state, and use internal links, external links, and on-page copy to boost that one page’s profile. The same principle can be applied to misspellings – do you need to misspell something on a page when you can just use a link?

Doorway pages in general, people still seem to think there’s a “one search term per page” limit, so you get these sites with hundreds of doorway pages, and little gray footer links on every page pointing to them. One of my students, last summer, collapsed 180 doorway pages into a couple dozen focused pages, built them up with good copy and good internal linking, and the rankings shot up like crazy.

Another problem in the SEO world, is people just not understanding how search engines work. Not understanding what they are capable of. Not understanding the logic behind it. A lot of goofy theories arise from this. Just as you had people inventing crystal spheres floating in a celestial aether, until Isacc Newton came along with a nice clean explanation of how the orbits of the stars and the planets come about, and the mathematics to deal with it.

The mythical “sand box” is one of these things where you have a bunch of different things going on, lumped into a convenient idea, but the truth is both much simpler and much more complicated. Sometimes I wonder if certain folks aren’t talking up this sandbox “disease” because they are also selling a miraculous cure for it. I’m sure I’ve just painted a bulls-eye on my back for my next trip to SES, but oh well.

Outside of hiring your services, what are some of the keyword research resources that you would recommend? WordTracker, Keyword Discovery, Hitwise, other free tools. What are a few of the most important things to consider in keyword research/analysis?

Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery are both good. I like Keyword Discovery for seasonal stuff, and when we need to “dig deep” in a competitive market to find all the little modifiers and stuff. The nice thing about Wordtracker is that you know where the numbers come from, so you can get a better idea of what the referral traffic might be from a successful campaign.

Hitwise’s Keyword Intelligence has proved to be somewhat of a disappointment, but they do have some things within their (more expensive) data service that are very interesting, like seeing competing sites, etc. Comscore also has a nice high end offering.

For automated discovery, we like SEMPhonic’s Market Scan Analyzer, which can analyze a bunch of web sites and come up with huge lists (tens of thousands) of search terms. To make this data useful, you have to run that list against Wordtracker or Keyword Discovery’s API, so that you can find out which of the terms people are actually using.

BeyondROI has a nice tool coming, called Beyond Keywords, which will let you do sort of an automated discovery on your own site. So the idea is that you could take an online catalog, spider it to extract the keywords they’re using, and put together an initial PPC campaign pretty quickly. It’ll take time for tools like this to mature, but it’s coming.

The silver bullet of SEM, which I expect to see within a year, is real competitive intelligence. With the right tool, you’ll be able to get a report on a competitor, see all of their PPC ads, see 90-95% of the search terms they’re bidding on, and even work out whether they’re doing broad match, phrase match, or exact match. I know exactly how to build it, but I’d need some serious cash from some visionary investor to make it happen. Most likely I’ll have to wait until someone else brings it to market, which is a shame because I would like to retire by 2008.

The Search Engine Marketing Kit you’ve written has become an valuable resource for many search marketers. It’s particularly useful for anyone that wants to start their own SEO/SEM consulting business. How did writing it come about? What was that like. What’s the shelf life of a print book on SEO since the industry changes so much?

Well, writing the book for SitePoint made it a very good experience, because we can tell so much more of the story, without having to explain what HTML is. We can write it for a professional audience, and know that’s who we’re selling to.

The big disappointment for me was that they didn’t see SEM as a big enough market to put it into mass distribution, as they’ve done with some of their programming books. I would like to have reached a larger audience, because people who read it do “get it,” and of course, from a selfish standpoint I want to reach a larger audience so I can grow my business and get free trips to speak in fun places.

In terms of “shelf life” and change in the industry, I don’t see that as a big deal. The principles are what matter. We’re working on a 2006 edition, which will be out later in the summer, but really, the principles of SEO haven’t changed in a long time, and the details change, but PPC isn’t really changing that quickly either. What we’re adding is stuff like case studies, to help illustrate the principles.

You have to do updates to keep up with brand changes, and the occasional new development, but it’s not that much really. For example, pay per call was pretty new when we published last year, but it hasn’t changed much since then. It’s noteworthy if Google finally takes steps to deal with paid links, or finally tells everyone that reciprocal links really aren’t trusted very much. If you understood what the search engines are trying to do, you wouldn’t be relying on paid and bartered links in the first place.

So with the entire book, I wrote it to last. I think we’ll be able to pick up the first edition in 3 years, and still be happy with 95% of it. The principles, the concepts, are the important thing. The specific options for PPC ad triggering may change a bit, but if you know what you’re trying to achieve and why, then you can absorb those changes and take advantage of them.

SEO training – How much of your business is SEO training? What kinds of “students” do you get? SEOs, company marketers, agencies? There’s been a trend towards companies and agencies bringing SEO/SEM in-house. Do you see that trend reflected in the types of participants in your training courses?

Training and coaching are the biggest part of my business, and it’s the main area that I’m focusing on for growth. More on the coaching program (http://www.seoresearchlabs.com/seo-course.php) but I will always have live classes going on too. I think, in all modesty, that the online delivery with conference calls and one-on-one attention makes what I offer the best value on the market.

We can deliver training to a lot of students very cheaply, and by recording all the classes we have this library of information that students can access whenever they have a problem or opportunity. This lets the student take control of the pace and schedule, and we see people getting better results because they take action. When it’s time to dig deep into PPC or site architecture, because that’s the most important thing for the site right now, then they can work on it right now.

You can spend a lot more money to go sit in an airport hotel, enduring a 5-day PowerPoint whipping, but you walk out of there with 100 pages of illegible notes and no idea what to do next. This undoubtedly works for some folks, but I hate this kind of training, almost as much as I hate the idea that some “SEO consultant” is out there right now preparing a proposal to write 100 doorway pages and add the client to their link farm.

We get a mix of in-house people, small business people, and web professionals – SEO/SEM consultants, web designers, and agencies. What’s been encouraging is the number of full-time, extremely capable, SEO people who understand that they need to keep learning – when a colleague is taking classes and trying to broaden their perspective, I gain a lot of respect for them. In the link building clinics (http://www.seoresearchlabs.com/link-building.php) more than half of the participants have been from SEO firms, and not just the link building guy.

The nice thing about what I do is that I don’t have any “clients” as such, only students. So I can spend most of my time researching and learning, and avoid the kind of task-saturated blindness that afflicts those who do implementation and project management all day long and try to catch up in the evening by reading forums.

Between all of my students, there’s always a new challenge, and opportunities to try new things. Basically, a bunch of people are sponsoring me so that I can remain a student and bring what I learn back to them. I also get to learn a lot by teaching – when you have 20 students in a “virtual classroom” who are all following the blogs and forums, those people bring a lot to the table too, and it comes out in the discussions we have.

In terms of agencies getting into SEO/SEM, and companies taking it in house, that’s going to continue, but it has limits. There’s still plenty of room for specialists, and there will always be outsourcing, but it has to change. You can’t rely on someone else to own your strategy.

For instance, with the big emphasis on links, and the consequences of bad linking strategy, I think every company that’s serious about SEO should “own” their linking strategy, even if they have to outsource some of the implementation.

Outsourcing to SEO firms is very risky, if you don’t understand what they’re doing, so even if you outsource, you still need a search engine marketing person in house, to manage the relationship. This is bad enough if you’re just an employee at a company that’s outsourcing SEO. When the company is your client and you have a lot tied up in the relationship, outsourcing SEO means risking your entire relationship, so it makes sense to bring it in house.

I’ve worked with 4 different interactive marketing or ad agencies over the past year, to help them build in-house capabilities. Depending on the circumstances and the client base, it doesn’t always make sense for an agency to go all in and offer “full service,” but they have to head in that direction if they don’t want to lose clients, because SEM firms are moving into the traditional ad agency turf, doing email campaigns, print campaigns, and other stuff. Whoever best understands the client’s business will eventually have a chance to win all of their business.

What could search engines be doing better in terms of communicating with the SEO community? Are there tools for search marketers from the search engines that you would like to see?

I think the search engines are doing okay, but it’s very self-serving, and a lot is deliberately vague. People make a living as bloggers, just trying to parse meaning out of the vague statements of Matt Cutts and others. Of course, to the insiders who speak to us, the conclusions we should draw are sort of obvious, but that’s because they understand how the engine works, and most SEOs don’t have the foggiest idea about any of it. A lot of SEOs I meet don’t even understand the basics like indexing.

One thing that I think would help is for the search engines to actually confirm penalties. Just give me some place where I can put in a domain name, and let me know if there’s any kind of penalty or whatever. That would be a start.

Giving us some kind of paid service where we can get a report of what’s wrong would be even better. The people who would be interested in this would be folks who are trying to clean up a site. If Google knows there are 3000 doorway pages pointing to some “SEO” firm’s clients on your site, they oughta tell you, or at least answer you for a small fee.

What are some of the resources you rely on for information on SEO/SEM? Best practices, news, industry information.

Wow, I read a lot of them, but with the way the blogosphere works, it’s more a matter of sifting out the noise How much is myth and how much is real, and how much of it is me-too-blogging, that’s getting worse all the time.

The actual signal is pretty small – Matt Cutts might post something useful, Rand Fishkin might post some interesting links, Aaron Wall might hit me with some news that I didn’t have, Threadwatch is always interesting but not necessarily informative. That’d be a typical day. I learn more from my students and private groups, people weed out a lot fo the junk before I see it.

Search Engine Guide and SEW are the two that kind of stand out, in terms of collecting all the stuff together so you don’t have to dig too much. I’m not into tagging and all that stuff just yet, when I’ve looked at it, I find as many splogs tagging themselves into my search results as I do actually content, unfortunately something being tagged doesn’t mean it’s any good. But the idea of tagging, and the social networks, will have a role to play, right now there just aren’t enough people doing it.

What’s search engines do you use most often? Do you use different engines for different purposes?

Since you didn’t ask, I’d like to say something about the SE Roundtable relevancy bake-off.’ What we got out of that was that Yahoo is competitive with Google in terms of doing organic search results, maybe even better in some cases where they’ve made manual adjustments, but if you’d shown the actual search results page, with Yahoo’s cluttered layout vs. Google’s cleaner pages, I think Google would win hands down in an unbiased test.

I use Google for almost everything. I try Yahoo and MSN occasionally if Google lets me down on a particular query Google still delivers for me in terms of search results 99% of the time, so I haven’t seen any reason to change to a different engine that will bombard me with ads for personal ads.

Thanks Dan ~

Lee Odden is President and Founder of
TopRank Online Marketing, specializing in organic SEO, blog
marketing and online public relations. He’s been cited as a search
marketing expert by publications including U.S. News & World Report and
The Economist and has implemented successful search marketing programs
with top BtoB companies of all sizes. Odden shares his marketing
expertise at Online Marketing Blog offering
daily news, interviews and best practices.

Interview with Dan Thies of SEO Research Labs
About Lee Odden
Lee Odden is CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, a digital marketing and public relations firm in Minnesota that specializes in search, social and online PR consulting and training for companies worldwide. Odden has been cited for his internet marketing expertise over the past 10 years by the Economist, Forbes and U.S. News and contributed a chapter to the book, "Online Marketing Heroes" published by Wiley. For the past 5 years he has also been the editor of TopRank's Online Marketing Blog, a Technorati 100 favorite blog and one of the top marketing blogs according to Advertising Age. WebProNews Writer
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  • http://www.wheels2ride.com Mark

    I totally agree, keyword research is of paramount importance in the development of a successful website

  • http://www.engineworks.com/blog/ EngineWorks SEO

    Again, Lee has written a great article here! It’s great to deal Dan’s perspective on search!

  • http://www.the-little-things-in-life.co.uk Peter

    I love research labs, great resource of information

  • http://www.business-sale.com Rodger

    I also love data mining, good read

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