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Interview of Peter Da Vanzo, Author of Search Engine Blog, Lover of Good Beer!

July 20, 2005

I have been a long time fan of Peter Da Vanzo. When I initially created a blog, I did not know much about blogging, writing, or the web, but I did know that Peter D's Search Engine Blog was great writing. I sorta tried to emulate him and a few other people until I started learning enough and being confident enough to post using my own voice, which I am still learning how to do.

I asked Peter for an interview. He said sure. And so it goes...

Obligatory interview suck up question... You are one of my favorite bloggers. Where did you learn to blog from & what blogs do you draw inspiration from or consider must reads (particularly outside of the search community)?

Thanks for the compliment, Aaron, and thanks for inviting me to do an interview.

I drew inspiration from Dave Winer, Dave Weinberger, Jorn Barger and Jeffrey Zeldman. I like how they wrote in a informal, conversational style which was a style of commentary that had become rare on the web at the time. Much of the writing, outside the forums and newsgroups, had become corporate, formal and impersonal - Brochurespeak. Journalism.

The bloggers brought back the off-the-cuff spirit of the early web, I think.

Outside search, I recommend reading Scripting News, Scobelizer, Gaping Void, The Long Tail. I scan hundreds per day using Bloglines, so it really is difficult to pick favourites. The best thing I can recommend doing is use an aggregator such as Bloglines, if you're not doing so already. It makes research easy.

How & when did you get into search?

I guess I started off by spamming Infoseek, rather successfully I might add, in 1996! <laughs>. I didn't know there was such a thing as search engine optimisation then, I just thought I'd discovered a clever little hack - until Infoseek put a stop to instant updates. I got into search more formally in 2001 when I started working for an agency as an SEO. Like most, I learned on the job.

I still have a bunch to learn, but when I knew absolutely nothing I knew that following links would help show me patterns / social relationships. As far as search goes, SearchEngineWatch is pretty much king of linkage data, but when I was first trying to figure out the web I noticed SearchEngineBlog had links from a wide variety of sites as well. What makes a blog or a site linkable?

Seth Godin, who I know you're also a fan of Aaron, said "in order to stand out, be remarkable".To those unfamiliar with the book The Purple Cow, what Seth means by remarkable is "be worth remarking upon". Be unique. Offer insights that others don't. Be relevant. Be different. Avoid repeating what others are doing, avoid stating the obvious, avoid the same-old-same-old. I guess what I was doing was unique enough and interesting enough to be remarked upon. Of course, it's a lot harder now as the space is saturated, however if you write just one compelling, unique article on search, it is almost certain you'll get a link from every search blog on the planet. Such articles are scarce, and bloggers like to be first to point to something unique.

My advice to people who want to build linkable sites is to study public relations and marketing theory. The main aim is to get people talking *about* you (Jakob Nielsen is a master at this). The linking then takes care of itself.

Are blogs, as a concept, over hyped?

Almost certainly.

I think we're seeing a lot of over-heated blog consultants blowing a lot of hot air, especially in the corporate space. If you enjoy writing, it can be a good thing to do, as that enjoyment is probably the only thing that will get you through over time. I do question whether many corporate legal and PR teams can deal with the challenges blogs present, and once a blog becomes PR-speak, it is dead. There's an attention economy, and people are immune to the same-old fluff.

One example of a corporate blog done well is Scobleizer. The success of that blog is due to the personality behind it, and that blog has done more for Microsoft PR than anything I can remember. Robert's straight talking pays off. A unique human perspective from deep within the machine.

Luckily, I've been free of corporate constraint and have made some fantastic contacts, got invited to some great events, and drank a lot of great beer. Works for me :) A blog is just a format. It's the level of writing and the degree of community involvement that will set them apart.

Recently I made a post about blogs becoming the noise they once tried to replace. You also recently made a post about RSS burnout. It seems to me many of the channels merely duplicate one another. You seem to post a bit less frequently than some of the other blogs, and not duplicate as much as some of us other search bloggers do.

How do you decide when to post about something and when not to? Do you assume your readers also read any other channels, or do you try to cover everything big / important on your site?

Heh. I probably post less frequently out of laziness! <laughs>

What you're saying is true - there is a lot of repetition, and there is a lot of noise. If there is some uniqueness in what I do, it's probably because I post what interests me personally. Hopefully others find it interesting, too. That's what I liked about the early blogs such as Robot Wisdom. You could rely on the author to point to interesting stuff that you may not have found otherwise. Like a few friends chatting in the pub and sharing stories.

In that respect, I'm not a journalist and don't pretend to be. The best blogs aren't journalism. My favorite blogs offer a unique voice that exposes the failings, the prejudices, the leanings of the author, and offer a unique perspective. Also, if you use Bloglines, or one of the other aggregators, you can view the search blogs as a collective. They all contribute an angle, and between them, you get a great daily overview of search developments. There's no requirement for any one blog to be completist. They couldn't possibly be.

I met you in person a while ago and thought "damn, this guy sounds just like his blog!" Is that accidental or intentional? How did you get the voice to match so well?

Thanks, I'm glad to hear it (and it was great to meet you too, Aaron).

It sounds like a contradiction, especially in light of the previous question, but I did consciously try to write in my own voice. I say "try" because I had to unlearn the academic and corporate modes of writing that I had been used to, and I found that a very difficult thing to do when I started. I'm getting a better at doing that now, hopefully. I want to write how I speak, and to be honest.

The individual voice is unique, nobody can replicate it, and that isn't talked about enough by blog commentators/consultants/gurus. Blogs are more about tone than they are about content.

You recently moved from New Zealand to London. I think part of that was business related, but do you think people will still be able to run successful SEO consultancies from far corners of the globe? Can you truly understand local markets from a distance?

I've lived in London before, and I love the city, so it was part business, part lifestyle. However, it is true that it is harder to do business at a distance. I find a lot more happens when you meet people face to face. The internet doesn't change that fact. Depending upon the type of work you're engaged in (affiliate, for example), I think you can operate in local markets from a distance, but I think you're at a disadvantage to the people who are on the ground. There are also a lot of cultural nuances that are hard to pick up unless you're engaged in that society day in, day out.

Also, the beer is a lot better over here.

There are about a million SEO firms on the market, and the industry generally has a fairly bad reputation. How does a firm stick out? What are the best ways to build credibility in an industry where it is sorely lacking?

I guess every profession has circling sharks. I'm not certain the SEM market has a universally bad reputation, but I do think there is an awful lot of self-generated paranoia. It can be easy to get caught up in insignificant concerns at the expense of seeing the big picture, and I think the best way to see the big picture is to read widely. Read outside the search community in order to gain perspective. Marketing, PR, business theory - they all form part of the SEO/SEM world. Weekly discussion threads about the sky falling in aren't particularly useful. Every client I've had couldn't care less about the mechanics and the politics. What they do care about are tangible results.

Do you think it is possible for the industry as a whole to change it's image, or do you think the bad image will remain part of the business indefinitely? What ideas or opportunities could help change the image of the search community?

Sure an image can be changed. I think the search engines could do a lot more to legitimize the search marketing industry. The two sides need to find the common ground, define the benefits, and push those collectively. I think that's starting to happen more, especially in the PPC world. There are representative organisations starting up, and hopefully they will go on to provide a more collective voice than has existed in the past.

SEO services are not necessarily transparent, and guarantees are usually limited. Some people offer bogus SEO packages for $49.

With good SEO services lead prices can be delivered at well below their value. With that ability to deliver value cheaply many people don't look at SEO from a broad enough perspective, completely undervaluing & under pricing their SEO services. One of the things I really suck at is explaining the value of SEO.

How do you get prospective clients to see / understand the value of quality SEO services?

Good question, Aaron.

I think you've hit the nail on the head by focusing on the value proposition. That's also something I try to do, and yes, it can be difficult for clients to get their heads around it.

I found I made the biggest advances when I stopped talking about rankings, optimisation, tags etc and started talking the language of the PR and Marketing worlds. As I was dealing with marketing execs, this gave a point of reference (i.e. cost per acquisition, cost per lead, branding etc) and it was easier to present the value proposition. Of course, people buy services for different reasons, so the most important thing you can do is to understand the customer and what they want. For example, I had a banking client. Their cost per acquisition for a financial product was $72 through direct marketing channels, which they thought was too high. Using search marketing, we got that down to a few dollars. The comparison was stunning, and that was a language the direct marketing people at the bank understood.

The same goes for any SEO. Speak in the language that your customer understands. Find a gap in the market and fill it.

$49 spent on a marketing campaign? What would they get if they spent $49 having their house painted?

Many people who contact me have no business model and want to rely on under priced SEO services to make up for near infinite business model weaknesses and a lack of foresight in business planning. What percent of leads do you get that you would say have value or are worth pursuing? How do you get more quality leads while discouraging the bad ones?

I evaluate the business model and if I don't think I can add value, I say so.

There really are some terrible models out there that aren't going to work no matter what SEM campaign you bolt on - like the old saying goes - you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. I've done a few jobs like that, we probably all have, but I don't enjoy them so I avoid them these days. I've scaled down the client side of late and am focusing on my own projects.

It's hard to find good clients, but when you find them, you cherish them :) I think Greg Boser said recently (and I'm paraphrasing here) you've got to love what *they* do, and I think that's very true.

SEO/SEM, done right, can be a very involved strategic process.

Search is much more complex than it was when I started a couple years ago. Do you see SEO services as a standalone business model that anyone can get into, or do you see algorithm advancement generally wiping out the opportunity for people new to the field?

I think SEO will naturally become part of the marketing world. That's been happening for a while now. As far as the algo goes, there's always the SEO's who love the thrill of the chase, and there will always be opportunities, but yes, I think the barrier has been raised. It's not as easy as it used to be, but that doesn't stop anyone setting themselves up as an SEO, just like anyone can set themselves up as a web designer.

Those who succeed will have the business acumen necessary to sustain the idea.

If you started an SEO business from scratch right now what niche would you go after and how would you market it? Are there any market opportunities that are currently being ignored?

The UK and European markets are interesting because they're a little behind the US in terms of adoption, so there seems to be a lot of opportunity emerging. China is very interesting for obvious reasons. I think we'll see a rebirth of the search verticals and portals.

The web has always been well suited to the niche player. If I started as an SEO now, I'd specialise and target one particular industry. Perhaps mix consulting with traffic generation and on-selling by way of portals, etc. Generally speaking, there will always be opportunities for people who understand people and their needs. That's how business works.

What are your favorite web related books & what topics outside of search do you think would be good for search marketers to spend time exploring?

Well, SEObook is a great read, and certainly one I'd recommend :) I like just about everything by Seth Godin. Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples is an old direct marketing book, but still essential.

Anyone who is considering blogging should read The Cluetrain Manifesto. Those interested in Marketing should read Philip Kotler. I think the most important thing is to read often and read widely.

I recently have been introduced to and like the words bullocks, ish, and pants. What are your favorite British words?

Pants is a good one, eh. I also like Battlecruiser. You may have to look that one up ;)

Were any of these questions pure pants? :)

Nope. They've been very difficult to answer! Thanks once again for the opportunity.

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Thanks for the interview Peter D. If you would like to check out more of Peter D's wisdom and writings you can do so at Search Engine Blog.com. Also be sure to look at his killer cool logo. If you see him at a conference or out on town please buy him a beer.

- by Aaron Wall, owner of Search Marketing Info

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