Q&A With Seth Godin, Founder & CEO Of Social Search Service Squidoo

Seth Godin is widely known as one of the foremost advocates of “permission marketing,” promotional campaigns that don’t rely on interrupting the attention of your customers, but rather engage them and even turn them into enthusiastic advocates that volunteer time and effort to help you promote your products or services.

Godin doesn’t shy away from controversy. He’s tweaked the noses of other well-known pundits, and in recent years has also blasted search marketers, accusing them of a variety of sins. But Godin is no stranger to search: Yoyodyne, an interactive direct marketing company he company he founded and ran was acquired by Yahoo in 1998. One of his current efforts is a human-powered search service (though he wouldn’t call it that): Squidoo.

I asked Godin to elaborate on his issues with search marketing and to talk a bit about his goals and aspirations with Squidoo. Read on for his fascinating views and opinions on what search marketers are currently doing wrong and what they can do to improve their campaigns and create a more effective dialogue with searchers.

Q. A few years ago, you wrote that you thought most search engine optimization wasn’t worth the money. Since then, your stance seems to have softened somewhat, with your acknowledging the work of some pros like Andrew Goodman and Aaron Wall. What’s your position on SEO today?

I think it’s important for everyone to act as if it doesn’t work. When it becomes a crutch, when you use SEO as a replacement for something else, you fail. I do agree that common sense white hat SEO is a smart tool—if you’ve done everything else—and your organization has appropriate scale. Short version: No magic bullets.

Q: What about companies that are operating in ruthlessly competitive areas, like travel, gambling, jewelry, etc? One of Yahoo’s chief spam cops, Tim Mayer, once said “If you’re being entirely organic and going after ‘Viagra,’ it’s like taking a sword to a gunfight. You just aren’t going to rank.” After all, there are black hats out there—shouldn’t you be realistic and compete with the same techniques they’re using?

Sure, travel is a brutally competitive area. And if you treat it like a commodity, you’ll get treated like a commodity in return. My point is that a tough business is not an excuse to cheat or to rely on tactics that don’t last.

If I ran a travel site, I’d engage my best customers to build blogs and Squidoo lenses and to use Digg to point to reviews and insights and things that would make people WANT to seek me out.

Spending money on ads or commodity-focused SEO is the last gasp of someone who is short on innovation, imagination and great stuff!

Q. At SES New York you said that people were attending the conference because “search is broken.” Can you elaborate on that?

Well, if search worked, then you wouldn’t need a strategy! People would find you when you needed to be found, and find someone else the rest of the time. Of course, search is always going to be a bit broken (though it keeps getting better) and the more human person to person recommending that gets included (including squidoo.com), the better it’s going to work.

Q: You describe Squidoo as “1) thousands of people creating a handbuilt catalog of the best stuff online 2) a free and fun way to make your own page and get traffic 3) a place to find what you’re looking for, fast. How does Squidoo differ from other community-built sites, like About.com, Wikipedia or others?

Wikipedia has one voice. Every contributor is anonymous. About.com has a few hundred voices, and only page on a topic. We’re a cross between the two, but we add in 65,000 people building the lenses… so you can find the people who you trust, the judgment that you rely on, and getting something more focused and up to date than about.com.

Q: I’ve found Squidoo to be helpful, but have also searched for some things where nobody has yet built a “lens” (focused topic page) on the subject. That seems to be a problem with all people-driven search projects—they don’t scale. How will you deal with this?

Well, they do scale (Wikipedia is xxxx times as big as the Encyclopedia Britannica) but not as fast as you (or I) might like. The win happens when each lensmaster brings in ten more. Do that three times and you’re 1000 times bigger than you were.

Q: I’ve also been critical of people-driven search because it’s often hard to tell whether someone is trustworthy or credible in their recommendations. How do you address these issues of trust and reliability?

You’re exactly right. You can’t tell. You can’t tell if a Squidoo lens is legit, or if Wikipedia got hacked. But as long as a) it’s better than the alternatives and b) improvable and c) another point of view then I argue that it’s worthwhile.

Blogs aren’t reliable either, but I’m glad they exist!

Q. If someone were just starting out (or starting over) with a web site, what key things would you recommend they spend time doing to attract visitors and engage with customers online?

Far and away job one: Make it easy for your best customers to tell their friends. Make products worth blogging about, sites that host consumer content that they promote, affiliate programs they want to embrace. Build the entire site about permission and not a pretty edifice.

Q: The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about companies that have sprung up solely to help promote web sites by encouraging people to email articles to friends, prodding them to vote for content on sites like Digg and so on. This is a close cousin of what you’re recommending, but it’s also somewhat artificial. Do you think this is a legitimate approach?

I hate this.

It’s another reminder of the selfishness and lack of passion that marketers often show.

Q. You’ve said that many search advertisers miss the boat by sending searchers to landing pages that try to get them to buy or convert immediately. Instead, savvy advertisers develop an “offer culture” where they experiment with landing pages and create a step-by-step process that encourages participation rather than a single event. While this sounds great, what about searchers who want to make an immediate purchase?

I think what I meant is that many advertisers make one of two common mistakes: a) they get lazy and send everyone to a generic page or worse, to a home page, instead of customizing an offer to match the ad itself, or b) they get impatient and try to turn that first click into a sale right now. While that works sometimes, we all know that real sales take time, and the beauty of permission is that you can educate and follow up later.

Q: Many search marketers are small business people—mom & pops or individuals working the web part-time. That’s what makes search appealing to them—it’s a relatively efficient way to reach many customers without spending a lot of time or money. Permission marketing seems more like a process that takes time and perhaps additional resources to follow up after the first contact. What suggestions can you offer for search marketers who have limited time or resources to adopt this approach?

I think if you’re not planning on being around in three years, you’re right, don’t build an asset that grows over time. Slowing down is sometimes the very best way to speed up.

Q. You wrote of the rumored Yahoo/Microsoft merger, “The best things to ever come out of Yahoo, as far as I’m concerned, have been the work of individuals. Not of some hyperbolic purple and yellow machine, but from people, strong-willed individuals willing to buck the bureaucracy.” Can you give some examples?

Yahoo Mail, Zeitgeist, Yahoo Finance, Flickr… these were all fairly renegade efforts, some internal, some not. Compare them to Yahoo Auctions, which was a strategic, top down, carefully focused effort to beat eBay. (Editor’s note: Yahoo recently announced that it was terminating auctions, working with partner eBay instead.)

It’s not just Yahoo, of course. Most organizations work this way.

Q: Yahoo just changed its mission statement—it’s now “To connect people to their passions, communities, and the world’s knowledge.” Microsoft’s mission is much vaguer: “At Microsoft, we work to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” Do you think the two companies would make a good fit?

I don’t think the missions have nearly as much to do with a match as the people. And I worry about the people fit.

Q: Crystal ball time: Describe the world of the web 5 years from now from a marketer’s standpoint. Will people still be using search engines as heavily as now, or will there be new ways we seek out information and products online? Will there be a shift away from traditional types of marketing to new ways of engaging with customers online? And who will the major players be?

I think there is going to be a major shift on a number of fronts.

First, permission marketing is really going to hit home when advertisers realize that the only ads they can deliver are ads that people sought out (at least among the most desirable consumers).

Second, anonymous media is going to take a real hit as we discover that lots of anonymous people posting movies and comments and such is a real pain in the neck.

Third, RSS and similar private channels will become much bigger.

And fourth, flipping the funnel and talking through the converted will elect presidents and sell lots of products.

Thanks, Seth.

The Q&A Land column appears Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Q&A Land | Search Engines: Social Search Engines | SEM Industry: General

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About The Author: (@CJSherman) is a Founding Editor of SearchEngineLand.com and President of Searchwise LLC, a Boulder Colorado based Web consulting firm. He also programs and co-chairs the Search Marketing Expo - SMX conference series.

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