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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Terrence Gordon, Search Engine Optimizer

Terrence Gordon is founder and CEO of Performance SEO. He has several years of experience in search and online advertising, and he’s been involved in online revenues for companies such as or Sony. Living in LA, Terrence enjoys surfing, tennis, skiing, and traveling different cities throughout the world. I’ve interviewed him on all things SEO.

When and how did you get started in the Search Engine Optimization industry?

I’ve had an 8 year career in Online Marketing – 5 of which were spent in Search Engine Marketing. I started out in SEO as a top Senior Consultant for a well-known SEO firm. I quickly realized the market needed something that nobody else was offering – or willing to offer.

When you look back, do you think the industry changed over the years?

Yes and no. The growth is in the Search sector is amazing. It’s what helped the Internet turn the corner after the crash. This last SES show in San Jose was the largest turnout ever. But even with the enormous growth and more players entering the market every day, the SEO industry as a whole is still very premature. I strongly believe SEO will become more of a controlled environment and less of a “wild west” as more companies realize its value and start investing serious dollars.

Do you have any anecdotes to share from the the SES show in San Jose?

Nothing specific, but the SES show these days is starting to look like the Ad Tech days of old (late-night parties, booth models, beer kegs in the booths during the show). I guess it’s indicative of the amount of money coming into the sector.

Do you think there are specific “pure SEO” techniques which are only helping search engines – and not human users?

It’s much easier to build a site “search engine friendly” and add user-friendly elements; rather than vice versa. We believe in building websites for engines, and designing the site for users. There are plenty of SEO techniques which have nothing to do with user experience that go into the fundamentals of the site. I think people kid themselves when they say “build a site for your users and don’t worry about the search engines”. That’s not only ineffective, but dangerous (mirrored sites, doorway pages, etc.) Search engines look for certain elements and criteria, which your site must have if you want it to rank well. You can’t simply build a website for your users and then cross your fingers hoping search engines will like it.

Could you elaborate on some specific “black hat” search engine optimization techniques you feel are still being suggested to clients today – but which you would try to avoid?

I personally think the “white hat” vs. “black hat” routine is comical. I mean it’s already got a biased connotation attached to it (black hat = evil / white hat = good). It’s virtually impossible to draw a line down the middle. Things are changing every day. You can’t grow without taking risks (in any business). Anything considered SPAM now was once considered an optimization technique. If you look at it objectively – SEO is all about speculation, trial-and-error and risk. It’s working theory in practice. In the end, we try to stay up-to-date and avoid anything that is going to negatively affect our clients’ rankings. We have a few of our own sites that we do testing on, so we try to absorb the risk instead of funneling it to our clients. It’s important for growth.

In the past, have you seen certain “black hat” techniques actually work really well? (That is, before the SEs adjusted to it.) Do some of them still work?

Renting site-wide / one-way links is something that is contested, but I have seen it work...and work well. Link popularity is something that the search engines will always factor into their rankings until they can find another measurement. Finding the right formula is what makes it difficult, and relevancy is becoming increasingly more important than quantity. It’s important not to “overdo” it....especially with new websites.

Have you actually seen a site being penalized for too many site-wide backlinks? When is it “too much"?

The only instance I can recall is [a specific SEO company] getting booted from Google’s index and losing their rankings, links and PR recently. According to Yahoo!, they have almost 10 million backlinks. But now that they have their links and PR back, who knows for sure. You just need to use your common sense when it comes to “too much”.

So it seems it’s often quality of backlinks versus quantity. How much do you believe Google PageRank is worth paying for when it comes to backlinks? What amount would you find reasonable for a backlink on a PageRank 10, PageRank 9, a PageRank 8, and a PageRank 7 page?

I’ve seen static links on PR 8 sites go for $5k per month. It’s difficult to put a specific price on Links since each site is different, and represents a unique value to everyone. To some the monetary cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the Return on Investment they are receiving from Top Rankings. There is speculation in the industry that Google is putting less and less emphasis on Page Rank and may eventually do away with it. I find that hard to believe. It’s what helped get Sergey and Larry get to where they are now.

What is your stance on integrating Flash? Is it detrimental to Search Engine Optimization?

The engines have been talking about being able to read/rank Flash for years. I think it has become more of a non-issue as time goes on. Most good developers these days integrate such a small and contained amount of Flash that it really has no effect either way. We urge sites that are 100% Flash or running Flash intros to readjust. Not only is it bad for search engines, but it’s aesthetically outdated.

Do you program as well? If so, what kind of SEO programming did you do in the past (in terms of tools etc.)?

I personally do not, but my partners have many years of experience in programming, dev and design. The marketplace has become more competitive and more evolved, and yet most SEO firms are still 100% programmer-driven. These days an effective SEO campaign requires equal parts programming, design and marketing. We believe that experience is what sets us apart and puts us ahead.

How do you start analyzing a client’s site? What are the top 3 things you look out for in order of importance?

We look at how well the site will respond to optimization and get rankings. Not every site can achieve rankings with optimization, which is something a lot of SEO firms couldn’t care less about because they get paid either way. We look at:

  1. Existing site structure and platform
  2. Existing momentum (rankings / PR)
  3. Keyword objective vs. competition

Which search engines do you optimize for, and to what amount? 75% Google, 10% Yahoo, ...? What are the key differences in the major search engines to you from a SEO point of view?

We optimize for Google. Not only is it the most difficult engine to rank for, but it’s got the highest market share. And usually top rankings on Google mean top rankings on almost all engines (excluding Yahoo!). I think Yahoo! makes it a point to distinguish itself from Google. It’s simply not possible to optimize a site according to search engine percentage.

The biggest difference (from my experience) is the user demographics on each engine and its effects on a site’s conversions. I have seen ecommerce stores who sell small-ticket “widgets” will perform better on Yahoo!, while service-oriented businesses that gather leads will perform better on Google. What’s funny is that Ask Jeeves actually has the highest customer satisfaction (of results), but you don’t see many companies throwing 100% of their online budget at them.

When you say Google is the most difficult search engine to optimize for, can you explain what sets it apart?

Google is usually the last engine to respond to optimization, and the first to penalize. They have a more advanced filter than Yahoo! and MSN, and rightly so. They have been at it for longer.

What do you think have been the biggest changes in terms of optimizing for Google during the past years?

Making sure you are implementing legitimate SEO practices has really kept the SEO industry on its toes. The so-called “sandbox” (now that it Google has verified its existence) has really put a beating to new sites. We tell people with brand new websites to expect not to see rankings on Google for up to 1 year to set their expectations. It’s a tough situation because people want results immediately...but they need to realize that the sooner they optimize, the sooner their results will come. The more momentum a site has, the easier it’s going to be to get rankings while running less risk of the site getting “sandboxed”.

Could you explain what it means to be “sandboxed” by Google?

“Sandboxing” is a term the SEO industry came up with for an evaluation period put on new sites before releasing them into the rankings. It’s speculated that new sites with an “abnormal” pattern of SEO and/or backlinks will get put into the sandbox until it’s manually or automatically released. I’ve heard of sites never making it out, and I’ve seen sites never make it in. It’s hit or miss, but Google has verified its existence. They just don’t call it “the sandbox” up there in Mountain View. That’s the name of their beach volleyball pit.

What do you think about Search Engine Optimization contests (like Nigritude Ultramarine or Seraphim Proudleduck)? Fun to Watch or Not the Real Thing?

I would be lying if I said I was familiar with them.

What does the perfect landing page look like if it wants to sell something to someone coming from a search engine?

Companies should think of their landing pages as homepages for their specific products/services. Ideally, each product/service should have its own page and contain every mention of that keyword in the architecture and copy. This not only is effective for SEO, but imperative for PPC conversions. You have to send visitors directly to the page that reflects the keyword they are searching. Sending users to the homepage or directly to a form field is a large and common mistake. Users are smarter and more impatient than ever.

How do you react to public criticism voiced from blogs et al? Search Engine Optimization has gotten a bad image in some circles over the years.

With growth comes criticism, and I firmly believe the way you react to criticism is what solidifies your reputation. The old saying goes – “it takes one to know one”. If you are running a legitimate operation, then criticism should be water off a duck’s back. People do have a right to stick up against what is untrue, going on the offensive against good-hearted criticism is when people really start to question your professionalism and your operation.

When working for one of the larger SEO firms, I received the brunt of the bad image of SEO. 1 of 3 prospects told me, “We’ve been ’burned’ in the past”. It really makes things unnecessarily more difficult. Part of our goal is to paint a prettier face on SEO by giving people the knowledge about SEO and holding ourselves accountable for their results. I believe the largest part of SEO is setting expectations correctly, and knowing you can’t help everyone. We believe the market is ready for some change. It’s a new day from our perspective.


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