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Q&A with Marshall Simmonds, In-House SEM: About.com, NYT.com
As a continuation of our series of interviews with in-house search engine marketers, this month we’ve engaged Marshall Simmonds. He heads up the search-related efforts at About.com and the New York Times. Marshall has a deep history working in this industry, and we wanted to ask him a few things, such as what his biggest challenges were, what his biggest successes have been, some of his best tips and, of course, what you should buy him to drink should you meet up.
How did you get your start as a search marketer?
I stared with a small marketing company in Bend, Oregon where I moderated the I-Search digest and worked, taught and learned with some of the best in search marketing today: Bill Hunt, Detlev Johnson, Derrick Wheeler, and Andre Jensen. Where I found my stride was joining About.com in 1999 to head up the in-house SEO position. It was a full-time gig working with the 850 guides over an incredible amount of topics. This was a point for me when I learned about reaching and managing a large group and strategic implementation. I also learned about the benefits of centralization and de-centralization of the SEO process and when they should be applied. In many situations, as with About.com, it’s more beneficial to train the entire company so all know search engine optimization and can apply it accordingly. Creating and working with strong SEO disciples in a large organization is very powerful. There are going to be potentially thousands of decisions made each day that can affect the SEO effort, so the more distributed expertise exists throughout the company, the better.
Now I’m overseeing the search strategy for the New York Times, Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune, About.com, as well as consulting with the A-team (Matthew Brown, Adam Sherk and Jay Leary) through Define Search Strategies for Time Inc Interactive, Hearst Digital Media, Toys R Us, Littlewoods Direct (UK), TVGuide, and The Telegraph.co.uk
What has been your biggest challenge?
Making inroads into the editorial process of a 154 year old company. More than that it’s coming into a situation and determining the best tactics for that particular organization. As I mentioned before, in many situations being the embedded strategist and centralizing the strategy is the most successful whereas with others it is more efficient and effective to train up a team while setting strategy, overseeing and guiding the execution. Each scenario, department and company is a unique situation and one approach cannot fit all – a good SEO strategist will know the difference and how to leverage the current strengths of an organization.
What has been your biggest success?
- About.com – incredible execution by the some of the smartest people on the Net. They make me look good.
- I and a few other influential people at the New York Times making the case to roll back the registration wall, as well as opening and optimizing the vast NYT archive to the world for free.
Please list three things companies should be aware of when embarking on a search optimization plan.
- Manage expectations – the bigger the ship, the longer it takes to turn, results will come but not necessarily in the anticipated form or timeline.
- Buy-in from the top doesn’t equal a successful SEO program. Finding and engaging who is implementing and doing the optimization is critical, as is training and follow up.
- Tracking – Without measuring ROI, a company can look at SEO as a lot of wasted effort. Beyond just measuring increased search traffic, it’s essential that a team create a coherent plan for what to do with those new visitors. Whether that’s monetization strategy or architecting the site so users consume more content than just the page they arrive on, it’s always a good idea to plan ahead.
How do you see the future of careers in search evolving?
Despite a lot of the noise still so pervasive across this industry, we’ve come very far. For example over the past few years we’ve seen many major companies creating search departments. As mentioned, when I started out I was one of the first in-house SEO specialists for a top 20 internet site with few other colleagues in the space. Now at any conference ‘in-houser’s’ are as plentiful as agencies and growing in number. This shifting trend shows the level of commitment by some of the more influential organizations and also works to further legitimize an industry with an ongoing reputation of snake-oil salesmen.
Any advice for those looking to build their careers?
It’s amazing how far being competent, reliable and responsible will get you. At Define it’s how we operate.
The search marketing industry is due for a step forward, in professionalism. There is an overwhelming amount of SEM information that simply won’t scale into today’s business environment. It’s why the negative reputations exist and why, if you read the major resources, there’s continuous arguing. In a way we’ve come full circle from 1997 both positive and negative; directory submissions and forum monitoring are today’s link building and social media marketing , advertising applications are a huge presence on Facebook and MySpace with addon apps, and bulletin board/forums are the ‘leave a comment’ feature complete with flame wars and infighting. I’m disappointed the industry has taken a step back and too many times I’ll read about or hear at a conference things that are malicious, juvenile and frankly don’t reflect a professional approach.
Big business isn’t waiting for the search marketing industry to be professional mind you. Those that are competent, and responsible, and professional are not only the fierce competitors in the market place but don’t need the megaphone to be effective. Ask the Bill Hunts of the world, the Frederick Marckinis and anyone from Define Search Strategies how to be successful in search marketing and they’ll smile at all the infighting. How much can you really be knocking it out of the park if all you’re doing is trying to make noise to draw attention?
My advice to those looking to build their careers is there aren’t a lot of shortcuts worth taking when you’re managing SEO for a big brand. It’s a fundamental shift in content production requiring company-wide execution. Search engine optimization is a long term process taking months/years of work and will not produce a quick blast of traffic a la paid search.
And, on the lighter side… What’s your favorite city and why?
Bend, Oregon – lifestyle.
Do you know of any outstanding restaurants you could share with readers?
Picollo Angolo’s in the West Village (in New York City). Best red sauce you may ever have in an Italian environment you may not experience elsewhere, in the US. Tell Papa, “Marshall from Oregon” sent you.
If someone were to offer to buy you a drink, what should it be?
Depends on the season and day. At a conference? Definitely a Bombay Sapphire and tonic with a lime. Summer ? Full Sail IPA please and winter, something dark.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Pilot, ninja, musician. Not in that order and not that I haven’t tried. I simply need to again.
What profession would you not like to do?
“I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. ”
What are you reading right now?
Just finished the Motley Crew biography – riveting….seriously!
Finally, I’m well into Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman – a now classic philosophical analysis of 80’s glam rock and heavy metal. On deck is a dip into the psyche.
Duane Forrester is an in-house SEM with Microsoft, sits on the Board of Directors with SEMPO, can be found at his blog where he speaks about online marketing and monetizing websites and is the author of How To Make Money With Your Blog. The In House column appears on Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.