I am very excited to bring you this interview with Danny Dover. Many of you probably know Danny best as the author of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Secrets, as an authority on search engine optimization in general, as a conversion rate optimizer, or from one of the many other fields he has excelled in. His skills and knowledge in online marketing have gained him numerous significant roles including Lead SEO at Moz (SEOmoz back then) and at AT&T. Today, Danny works as an independent consultant, is an influential writer on online marketing, and spends a significant amount of time emptying his bucket list.
When I prepared for my conversation with Danny, I mostly thought our conversation would revolve around the online marketing aspect and I wasn’t aware of the adventure that he had been on over the past few years to fulfil his dreams around the world. We spoke for well over an hour, so to keep things digestible, this post will be about all things SEO. Our conversation about Danny’s bucket list and how it inspired him to travel the world will be covered in a separate post (you can read it here).
If you are looking for a place to start on SEO, I suggest starting by reading The Non-Marketer’s Guide to SEO.
When you went into SEO many years ago, it was a very different discipline and far less known and developed than today. What made you get into online marketing and into SEO in particular?
That’s a great question and brings me to one of my favourite topics. When I first got started in SEO, it really was not much of a thing. Google was still growing and the whole playing field was completely different. I originally got started because I love studying, and what I spent all of my free time doing was trying to understand the internet. I was going to the University of Washington, and I quickly realized that they couldn’t teach me the kind of things I wanted to learn about the internet. Instead, I started applying to a bunch of startups in the area saying I would work for free if they gave me the opportunity to learn. Moz at that time was the only one foolish enough to hire me as an intern. I started there when they were very, very tiny. It was like four of us or so and I quickly realized that SEO, which I had not heard of before then, was a great way to study the internet. I have not looked back since. It has been a great adventure.
Back in the day, I guess no one knew how big SEO would be or how central Moz would be to the development of the industry. Was it a coincidence? And how did you figure out that SEO was what you wanted to focus on?
Well, it was partly coincidence and partly following what I loved doing. I was trying to study the internet, and I realized that the university would not be able to teach me what I needed to know. The university was not teaching material as fast as the material was getting created. So I applied to this company which was doing a lot of web development, a lot of early digital marketing consulting, a little bit of SEO, and a little bit of other things.
What I didn’t realize was how big SEO would get and how prolific that company (Moz) would become. I learned from the group there, and I was able to help a lot with some of the writing there and the tools that we were able to create as a team.
That sounds very interesting. As part of a completely new discipline, how did you get your name out there back then? Were there any campaigns that you guys launched that were particularly successful?
There have been a few big ones. My first big hit was a blog post and associated PDF called “The Web Developer’s SEO Cheat Sheet” (see the updated version here). This was the first time I had done some work that got a lot of publicity. And it was one of the first times that Moz got a lot of publicity from blog posts. The trick I stumbled upon was creating something that I wished already existed in the world and giving it away for free.
It wasn’t a skill that I had learned. It wasn’t something I was trying to achieve. It was just something I thought should be done and built, and it ended up getting downloaded well over a million times, which was a high number when Moz was first getting started. It was something that kind of took hold, coming up with things that provide a lot of value and then, initially at least, not asking for anything in return — just giving it away for free. That’s something that has really helped me through my career in general.
It must have been one of the first pieces of content marketing, not just at Moz but in the world?
Probably. Certainly, for this niche, it was the first. It happened just because, again, I thought it needed to exist not because I was doing it for any specific purpose other than to help myself and the people reading it.
Particularly back then, but even to this day, there seem to be a lot of people in the SEO industry that like to keep secrets about how they work, because they believe in a sort of secret sauce. How did you guys come up with the idea of sharing something like this for free? It seems quite different from the general trend in the market.
This I completely attribute to Rand Fishkin. Rand is the former CEO and founder of Moz. He taught me from a very, very early stage about authenticity and transparency. It is part of the DNA of that company, part of the backbone, called The TAGFEE Tenets: being as authentic and transparent as humanly possible. That was something that I did not really understand in the beginning because it ran counter to what I thought marketing was, but I quickly realized that going against the grain of what society generally does helps you stand out more in a positive way. The company continues to do this today and is quite successful because of it.
I took the ideas that I learned at Moz – mostly from Rand Fishkin – and AT&T later and wrote a book on the subject. Just trying to provide something of value and being as authentic, transparent and real as humanly possible, even when it was uncomfortable. That has helped me be successful many, many times.
With a mindset so different from the traditional, how did you find the challenge of going from an innovative start-up consultancy to a corporate giant like AT&T at a time when SEO was still in its infancy?
Well, it was very difficult at first. I have to give credit to the people at AT&T, specifically my former boss, John Cole. He hired me because he had seen my work that was successful online. He wanted to figure out what was at the core of that and bring it to AT&T. He and the rest of the staff at AT&T deserve a lot of credit for going against the traditional bureaucracy and giving me a lot of freedom to use the same strategy there.
It must be exciting, and very unusual, for such a big brand to give you enough freedom and resources to execute your ideas without limiting your creativity.
It really was. That was the biggest difference between working with small start-ups where I started and going into a big behemoth like AT&T. It was not just the resources. I mean, that part was fairly obvious. What surprised me about it was that with the start-up, we would go three steps forward, one step back, and sometimes we got a big leap forward, sometimes not. At AT&T, no matter what, just because of the size of it and the amount of resources you have, you would move a little bit forward every day. It was relatively slow but it was consistent and forward moving. In the beginning, it was frustrating because you only moved a little bit. But then I realized that this is what made that company so successful in the long term: every single day it moves forward a little bit, and in the long term it has gotten very, very far.
At the beginning it was frustrating because you only moved a little bit. But then I realized that this is what made that company so successful in the long term: every single day it moves forward a little bit, and in the long term it has gotten very, very far.
You have been part of building many brands, AT&T included. What were some of the most successful standalone events that you have seen?
So fast-forward 3 years from what we have been talking about with AT&T and Moz to my current company. I wrote a post about the time I spent living in Singapore. It was part of the bucket list that I mentioned earlier (ed.: read Danny’s story about his bucket list and world travels here). By being honest, telling my experience and writing against the grain of what I have read elsewhere, this piece ended up being my most-read piece of content ever. The view count is 4+ million uniques and still rising. This is quite high for a personal blog. This is the one that surprised me the most.
I don’t know if this was a campaign per se because I was writing this without any goal of making money or selling products. It was just information I thought should be out there in the world. This is the one that surprised me and I think made the biggest human impact, which is quite important to me because of the conversation it started. There were hundreds of blog comments and re-shares of that post, and all these other things that are generally seen as important metrics for the social campaign perspective. This was all done just because I thought it was, again, information that just needed to be out in the world.
Very interesting. If we stick a bit to these things that “need to be out there” that you have mentioned a few times, I’m wondering if at some point we will run out of this kind of information. What is your take on that?
Well, we’ve started to see the oversaturation of this with a lot of things in SEO specifically. For instance, we have people saying “content is king” or writing posts on the top ways to build links being written all the time on many blogs. Those topics are oversaturated. But I think the marketers who are winning and doing the best are the ones taking the same ideas and applying them in new ways, or bringing up new information about them.
I think that is the way people can be successful: by providing new information even if it’s about the same general subject.
To what extent do you think this oversaturation has already happened? Would you say that the aggregation of public information is decreasing in value, or is it just these top 10 things to do X or similar lists that are dying?
I think there are a few things going on. In the online marketing space, I think that it is vastly oversaturated with this kind of content because marketers are a unique niche, and they are trying to be very self-promotional because that’s one thing this group of people does well. And so, you have lots of people trying to promote themselves with the same bland ideas.
The other part of this has to do with how information is being formatted and distributed. Take BuzzFeed and all its competitors. The way they distribute information — with the format of the top 10 list and the slideshows — is starting to get overshared, and supply is starting to go unconsumed. People just become tired of the sameness.
Aside from these top 10 lists, are there other techniques that you see are dying?
Well, lots of them. The traditional top 10 search results on the SERP has died. Instead what we see is brand new formats for SERPs with quick answers, inline videos and animations. We see this on normal search, book search, we’ll see this on app search, and on iTunes, we are just getting one result whereas people were getting about 10 before.
You have talked about some of the things that will not survive for long, or are at least decreasing in value. What are the new trends you see for the coming months and years, particularly in SEO but also more generally in the online marketing space?
The biggest trend that I see probably over the next 6 to maybe 9 months is the shift away from keyword-based searches to natural language searches. I think the clear win — or at least the early win — is providing search results for the way that people speak rather than what people type on their computers. The way SEO has been done for the last 8-10 years has been for specific keywords, generally just one head term. I think that will change as people start talking into their phones when they are doing a search, or talking at their desktop with Google Now and Google conversational search.
I think the clear easy win for the next 6 months is to start developing search results for the way people speak in all associated dialects, as opposed to the keywords people have been chasing for a long time.
It seems like a completely different landscape from even 3 years ago. I remember when Google first started introducing different protocols, so there’s something like maps and video and these other things. And now, it seems like a naïve way to look at it just because we have learned so much since then. It’s not so much that you can search by vertical but more the way the information comes in, and the best way to display that information is fragmented and multifaceted. You have to look at it as a big jungle of results. So all that stuff is having an impact on how people are searching, how the search engines are experimenting, and how social networks are displaying this kind of information.
As you said, Google seems to be abandoning the traditional SERP with ten blue links. How do you see the change in general? You mentioned the earlier example with the app store getting one result rather than a list. How do you see that changing for broader searches over the next year?
If we talk about the long term, I see the rhythm of searching changing. Right now, we have to go out and gather information when we conduct a search online. We have to go and do expected searches and actually ask a question. I think in the future the process will not look like that.
We will stop going to the App Store to get apps and going to Google’s homepage to be able to ask specific queries related to web documents. I think instead it will be very, very customized. Think about how users are able to customize the desktop on their computers. Your computer is probably very different from the desktop on my computer. It’s because we organize information differently in our brains. This personalized organization system is reflected on your desktop and computer screens. I think that the search results of the future will be more similar to computer desktops. The kind of topics and the general categories will not be set in different stores or in different verticals. Instead, it will be however you want to categorize it or how it works best for you individually, and the information will be fed into that system.
I think that the search results of the future will be more similar to computer desktops. The kind of topics and the general categories will not be set in different stores or in different verticals. Instead it will be however you want to categorize it or how it works best for you individually, and the information will be fed into that system.
Google’s stated goal is to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful. I think one of the parts they have not yet been successful at is presenting information to me in the way that is most valuable to me individually, which can be very different from how it is for you. You will organize information in your head very differently than I do, as will everybody else. While they have been able to represent, say, this lowest common denominator with their current search result format, I think it will have to go several steps beyond that to become truly useful and accessible.
Do you think this “search engine of the future” will come from Google, or do you think the likes of Facebook, Twitter or even other companies will become that search engine?
I think there will be lots of different sources. Someday, something will kill Google, the same way that something that was a completely new idea, like Wikipedia, ended up killing encyclopedias. The thing that kills Google will look nothing like Google today. It may be Facebook, although there are so many similarities that I would be surprised if it will be Facebook. I think it will be something entirely different — a way of exposing information which does not exist right now.
I guess, as, with so many other things, it would be interesting to fast-forward 5 years and see what it looks like. On the other hand, that would kill all the fun right now.
Well, if you figure out what the next Google killer’s going to be, let me know because there will be billions to be made from that.
Talking about Google and search engine developments, we have seen Google displaying products and working as an aggregator when it comes to Google Shopping, for example, where they end up competing with their customers. How far do you think Google will go into these spaces, with scraping information and taking over what could otherwise be successful standalone companies?
I think Google’s search engineers will go as far as they need to for the best user experience. They care about individual users. They don’t care about the companies providing the data or the ones aggregating it. I don’t know what that future version actually looks like but I think that’s where their target is — the user experience and making that better, as opposed to worrying about what may or may not be legal.
On the topic of things that are dying, is there anything you see right now that, in your opinion, the general marketing profession is getting wrong?
The biggest thing I see the general marketers getting wrong is voice. I think that this generation and the generation prior to us was brought up on advertisements that were very in-your-face and very direct. It’s kind of this used car salesman pitch that you see so often. I think a lot of marketers are taken with what they have seen as successful in the past and keep trying to apply it to this new world that we live in. The tone of voice, the way that they are communicating, and their calls-to-action are just too direct and too in-your-face. I think the way to really make an impact is to be a lot more conversational or to introduce the soft sell rather than push a hard sell.
A lot of the writing right now in online marketing media is about going away from “calls to action” towards “calls to benefit.” Is this the direction you see, or will it go even further to the extent of doing away with colourful buttons? How far do you see this going?
I think the people praising the calls to benefits are right. As the user, what I care about is me and what you can do to make my life more convenient or better.
I think we have a lot of really interesting shifts in calls to action, in what they look like and how they are. It will be demonstrating the benefits displayed in lots of different ways. So it’s no longer, say, a button on a form. Instead, it might be walking into a store or turning your car around, then being asked some question through your sound system or similar.
Let’s take a step back from this more omnipresent form of search, and talk a bit more about brands in general. When you think of great marketers or brand builders, what are some of the names that come to mind? Who were the people that inspired you?
There’s a blogger named Tynan, who I believe is one of the world’s most underappreciated marketers. His “trick” is that he is not trying to be a marketer at all. Instead, he is just being extremely authentic and honest with his work.
He is doing an extremely good job of appealing to the up and coming generation. He is looking forward with people spreading messages and leading that kind of cool and actively living an interesting lifestyle and sharing it with others.
Talking about inspiration, what are some books that you would recommend for other marketers to read?
There’s one that really stands out for me; it’s called The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. This was written I believe in the 70s, but it has held true for the last 40 years. I think that this book really stands on its own by staying true to the core tenets of marketing. My biggest takeaway from it was that marketing tactics change all of the time but marketing strategies have always stayed the same. Marketing really is just sharing information and providing value. Neither of those concepts has changed very much. It’s just the tactics, how you do it that’s changed.
That said, listing top books can be misleading. There are a lot of great authors but if you read the same stuff that everyone else reads then you’re going to come out with the same solutions, and that will not really get you far ahead. I think the way to do it is to focus on the essential reads and then spend your time experimenting.
What’s one thing that you would have loved to learn a bit earlier in your career?
The best tip I can give to any digital marketer is to learn how to write code. So many SEOs have no idea how to write even HTML. By learning to write code (Ruby or Java for example), you’re able to get into the same mindset as the Google engineers writing the algorithms you’re trying to reverse-engineer. So if you can learn to code, it’s only going to help you, not only with digital marketing but with any technical job.
This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second part focuses on Danny’s personal development, how he got around his depression and about he fulfils his bucket list. You can read it here.
Photos: Danny Dover’s personal images