Expert Search Engine Optimization Interview with Dana Todd

Expert Search Engine Optimization Interview with Dana Todd

As August quickly approaches, I’ve begun prepping for the Vertical Measures August webinar “Onsite SEO: Building a Solid Foundation for Your Website” and I had the privilege of speaking to some of the great minds in SEO for the next few weeks of Expert Interviews on SEO. I’ve started by speaking with Dana Todd, the Co-founder and CMO of Newsforce, Inc. Press industry analysts and technology leaders frequently tap Dana for her knowledge of the search engine marketplace. She regularly appears as a top speaker at national and international conferences.Dana Todd

Elise Redlin-Cook: Would you consider yourself a “coder/ programmer”?

Dana Todd: Gosh, no. I wish I could code – I’m envious of programmers, but my brain is not entirely linear and my background is in classical marketing and advertising. My talents lie more in being able to DE-code rather than code. That is, sifting through verbal and visual clues to find patterns and unique opportunities. It works for creative brand development as well as quant-y keyword analysis. I have a gut instinct that’s faster than any software program, and it’s usually right, but I use a lot of proper research and tools to make sure I’m on track and to refine my strategies.

Elise: What are your thoughts on the direction of Web 2.0 technologies with regards to SEO?

Dana: The title “Web 2.0” technologies is pretty fuzzy. I’ve seen people apply the term to practically anything, including referencing web graphic styles that have rounded corners! But I think the biggest concern in SEO-land was regarding heavy use of Ajax and client-side technologies for rendering information. Obviously, if Google can’t read the page then you need to find alternate forms of providing this information. I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, just make sure that all your critical information isn’t invisible to search engines. Most webmasters have figured out ways around it by making sure that shareable widgets, mashups, etc., are properly encased in meaningful content containers. Ajax seems to be most useful in back-end applications such as dashboards, that aren’t SEO fodder anyway.

Elise: Good stuff. Well, what role does social media play today in an SEO strategy?

Dana: While social media today has only a small impact on SEO, it may have more significant impact in the future. Google and Bing are both experimenting with how to integrate “real time” and social influence factors  – which typically come from social media sources – into the main search results. Pure “Social Search” sites and technologies have been around for a while, but they don’t seem to get a lot of traction with everyday users. People are starting to use Twitter and Facebook for searching out opinions, but the information gleaned for a user is fairly anecdotal.

One place that you can definitely point to an immediate opportunity is in the news and news search space. Highly referenced news sources that get Twitter traction and Facebook/LinkedIn exposure are more likely to get picked up in online media sources and blog content. Which of course can ultimately tip the scales in your favor for SEO if you succeed in securing a decent amount of reference links. So, utilizing your social media channels effectively to support a PR/breaking news strategy can have immediate payoff both in terms of organic SERP improvement and incremental social media traffic.

Elise: We get asked a good deal about on-site factors. I’m curious what are the main tools that you use in your SEO Site Audits?

Dana: I don’t do a lot of technical audits myself . My work is primarily executive strategy, but I am privileged to be an adviser to SyCara, a new enterprise SEO software tool in beta now. I and several other customers got to help build the specs on it so that it meets our institutional needs better than just the random collection of tools that most people use. I get a little frustrated with the software options out there right now, which don’t lend themselves to building a scalable service organization. Every time there’s employee turnover, all the history walks out the door which ultimately endangers your SEO investment.

Elise: The Search Engine Optimization field has changed a great deal in the last couple of years. How does it differ from when you first began?

Dana: First of all, there was no Google in 1996 when we first started doing SEO at SiteLab. A lot of people think that today’s 25 x 25 twitter iconSEO is more difficult, because you can’t get the “easy wins” that were possible back then, but I actually think that it was much more complicated back then in many ways. For one thing, we no longer have to make 5-6 copies of every page, one for each search engine (yes, there were six majors back in the day). Everything back then was “black hat.” Heck, there were no rules at all so everyone was throwing all kinds of things out there, very chaotic and ultimately bad for the industry in terms of perception. That cowboy mentality brought excitement to the field, but the damage can still be seen today in terms of how people outside the industry feel about SEO.

Elise: What are the biggest obstacles that you face in getting clients and/or developers to execute your action plan?

Dana: Most obstacles can be overcome by setting expectations from the beginning, and making sure that clients fully understand their role in the process. They’re resource constrained – that’s why they hired you. So, it’s up to you to deliver something they can act on. If they don’t act, it’s YOUR fault, not theirs. That’s right, I said it: your fault. You need to go back and figure out where you didn’t communicate well enough or project manage well enough, and make it super easy for them to execute. 25 x 25 twitter iconThe most valuable SEO partners are those that can think through the business-readiness of their services, and who create the least pain in their customers’ lives.

Elise: What advice would you give to those that are new to SEO and lack the knowledge, experience, and hindsight that you possess?

Dana: Once you get a solid set of training wheels and you have tested your mettle on a few SEO cases, find a way to specialize so that you can stand out and get ahead. If you’re competing against SEO heavyweights or large teams, you may not win easily, so find niches such as video optimization, image optimization, real-time/news optimization, local search optimization, etc., that can help you pick up customers and build a name for yourself. Also, since you’re a specialist you will have a better chance of ranking for that specialist term than general SEO terms. Bonus! There’s a huge need for SEOs in the publishing world, which is an industry I am deeply involved in – particularly news. It’s a completely different kind of SEO, and creative minds can really have fun with this job.

Elise: As a co-founder and former board member of SEMPO, are you still involved with the organization?

Dana: Of course! I stepped off the Board this year, but I’m actively involved as a co-chair on the Education Committee which puts on free public webinars. Our topics and speakers are always fantastic, so I urge everyone to sign up for the mailing list at We also place SEMPO members as speakers at events all over the world and answer questions from people who ask for advice about working with search marketers, etc. The organization has really grown its local presence in 40 countries, and I’m excited that we’re getting a lot more traction in local markets to provide connection points around the world.

Elise: What search marketing conference do you most enjoy attending? Speaking at?

Dana: I have spoken at almost every US Search Engine Strategies conference since the program began, and have represented the search community at ad:tech, OMMA and other general advertising conferences. I have also spoken at SMX and Pubcon. I love talking about Internet marketing and educating folks no matter where I am – be it at a formal conference or in the back of a cab – so it’s hard to choose a favorite. Each has a unique audience and character, so they’re very different experiences and methods of engaging. I love the networking at any conference; SEMs are such an amazingly supportive and friendly community.

When speaking, what’s compelling for me is figuring out what they are interested in learning, and how to best model my teaching style around their mental patterns. Some of my most challenging, but fun, conferences are vertical associations where the audience is almost completely unfamiliar with the technical components of search and it’s not their job to understand at that level. You have to put all the SEO logic and tasks into a business decision framework and avoid talking “techie” so that your message is received and they can use the information to help drive their own success.

Elise: In 2004 you stated that you had serious doubts about the usefulness and quality of personalized search. How, if at all, has your view changed?

Dana: My opinion hasn’t changed much except for appreciating the geo-location component of personalized search. I must say that the technology has gotten MUCH better since 2004, and it’s more subtle now. It used to stick out like a sore thumb and interrupt my research thought-stream, and it annoyed me that it never offered a “Reset” button to clear the cache and start over when doing a seriously deep research project. I still log out of iGoogle most of the time, so that I get only same-session personalization. If I’m logged in and search for “cars” I get this random stuff in my results:

While I might like to check out what my Twitter crew thinks about cars, I can already get that from Twitter so I really don’t want it cluttering my Google. Frankly, though, I doubt most people even notice it which means I’m the only old crank in the user base who is bugged by it. I also don’t like my food to touch on the plate. 🙂

As far as SEO and personalization goes, there doesn’t seem to be any solid information on how to optimize for it. There are a lot of theories about how social media may ultimately influence personalized search, but I haven’t heard anything concrete about what to do/not to do to influence personal search.  Certainly, it’s impossible to get any reporting around what level of exposure you got on a term in a personalized search.

Elise: Could you recommend some relevant reading materials to newcomer in the field

Dana: I always recommend for newbies:

  • The Truth About Search Engine Optimization, by Rebecca Lieb (fast read, condensed tightly and written at a high level – suitable for business managers as well as practitioners)
  • Search Engine Optimization One Hour a Day, by Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin (more of a workbook. It breaks the process down into bite-sized activities)
  • The Art of SEO, by Jessie Stricchiola, Rand Fishkin and Stephan Spencer and Eric Enge (this is a bit more comprehensive but should be a “Bible” to anyone serious about SEO)

Of course I have to brag on the Insider’s Guide to Search Marketing course from the SEMPO Institute. We’ve trained several thousand people with this online course and it’s very accessible to newbies and even non-technical marketing people. Also, isn’t really a book, it’s an ongoing training series, but I hear great things about it. And, Bruce Clay has written an SEO for Dummies book that would be accessible to newcomers.

Elise: Awesome! Those are great recommendations. So, do you have any exciting projects that you’re involved in right now that you’d like to discuss?

Dana: I’ve always got my fingers in a bunch of pies. I’m a serial entrepreneur not by conscious choice but because I love creating things and taking leadership roles wherever the mood strikes me. Newsforce has been my obsession for the past four years, building a new type of engagement media that supports news sites with increased revenue, and is uniquely positioned to play in that unique space between news media and PR/brand awareness tactics. I’m also helping to grow a new organization called IIA, the International Institute for Analytics, which is a “big tent” peer research organization for analytics across business information (BI) and other applications such as web analytics. And, I just joined the Board of San Diego Software Industry Council, with the intent to help broadcast the long-held secret truth about how amazing the tech innovation is here in San Diego. There are many brilliant people and companies in SoCal (Southern California), but we don’t do a good job of bragging about it to our Northern cousins and beyond.

Elise: I know that you do a great deal of business traveling in general. In all of the places you’ve been, where would you most like to live?

Dana: I’m quite keen to get out of the US before I get too old for adventure, and try living in another country. I just haven’t decided which one yet. Asia seems fascinating, Europe is romantic and rich in arts, and on and on. I’ve been kicking around South Africa and New Zealand, both of which would be incredible adventures. Tell your readers to pitch me their countries! I’m still collecting data…

Elise Redlin

Elise is the Content & Marketing Manager at Vertical Measures, an internet marketing company in sunny Arizona providing services ranging from content marketing, to social media marketing, link building, and advanced SEO. She’s fully immersed herself into the world of content marketing and content strategy and is the managing editor of this blog. +Elise Redlin