Shari Thurow Makes for Candid and Insightful Commentary

Shari Thurow has been in the search marketing industry since the very early days of the internet, when having a website was a big deal. She’s speaking at the upcoming Search Engine Strategies Toronto, taking place June 8-10, 2009. I’ve had the unique opportunity to interview Shari, related her panel on “SEO Then & Now: What’s the Same? What’s New?“. I’ll be liveblogging SES Toronto, so I hope to meet you there.

Q: Hi Shari, welcome to Search Marketing Insights! Can you please give us some background info on yourself and tell us how you started out in search marketing?

ST: Hello, Search Marketing Insights readers. Some of you might know of me already, since I have been a search engine optimization “expert” since 1995. My area of specialty is search-engine friendly website design, since I began my web career as a designer/developer. From the outset, back in 1995, I have designed search-engine friendly websites.

I still am a designer/developer. I see how search engines and users interact with various types of web pages and websites on a daily basis. I do not only design, write, code, script, program, etc. websites for search engines. I have always designed, written, coded, etc. websites for people who use search engines, both the commercial web search engines and site search engines.

I have authored three books: Search Engine Visibility (1st and 2nd editions) and When Search Meets Web Usability, which just came out in April 2009.

So even if you haven’t heard of me personally, believe me, almost everyone in the search marketing industry has been influenced by my research and work over the past 14 years. I very much enjoy what I do, and will continue working in the field of search marketing.

Q: A plethora of businesses who had their initial websites designed in circa 2000-2002 are finally considering complete site overhauls. As a site owner, what does one need to be aware of in 2009, in order to build a search engine friendly website?

ST: Honestly? Truthfully? I would say that the vast majority of self-proclaimed “experts” in search-engine friendly website design are not experts at all. The strong foundation needs to be there, regardless of the new technologies that have evolved or have been created in the past 10 years.

Search-engine friendly website design is based on 4 building blocks. These building blocks have not changed in over 10 years, and they are not about to change in the next 10 years.

Search engines spiders index text and follow links. Therefore, to make your website more search-engine friendly, pages must contain the words and phrases that people type into search engines, and the pages need to appear somewhat focused on those words.

Search engines will not access and analyze that text unless you give them access to that content. So you have to provide user-friendly access to that content in the form of site navigation, supplemental navigation element, and URL structure. Notice that I emphasized the phrase “user-friendly.” Remember, search-engine friendly design is designing a site for people who use search engines, not throwing out every site navigation scheme a computer program can muster.

These two things? I haven’t changed these items since I first became a web developer in 1995. People still don’t “get” these items. Doesn’t matter that you know Flash. Doesn’t matter that you know AJAX. Doesn’t matter that you know IP delivery. Doesn’t matter that you know the Cold Fusion URL workaround. If you don’t “get” these two items, then as far as I am concerned, you don’t “get” search-engine friendly website design.

I know those are bold statements, but I stick to my guns. I think it is very sad that the #1 mistake I still see is the lack of attention to a strong infrastructure.

Q: Flash animations have long been the bane of many a SEO. With recent advancements in Google’s ability to deal with links in Flash, is it a wise decision to incorporate partial flash content into a site or is it still prudent to build flash-less sites?

ST: There is a time and a place to use Flash technology, just as there is a time and a place to use AJAX or other “cool” technologies.

I understand that people and companies use Flash for the wrong reasons: management or the marketing department thinks it’s “cool” or some other bogus reason, usually in the form of a “people love interactivity” argument. Developers love to use Flash. Who wouldn’t? Flash interfaces can be a lot of fun and make for great portfolio pieces.

But, as I said before, there is a time and a place to use Flash. If your target audience genuinely wants to use Flash-based interfaces and can more effectively complete their desired tasks using a Flash-based interface, then, by all means, use Flash. But be pro-active about it. Don’t just jump into it (Flash projects typically cost 3 to 4 times as much as straightforward XHTML projects). Do a pilot run on the pay-per-click engines. Usability test – don’t rely on focus groups. Parts of a site can be greatly enhanced with Flash-based portions. Most sites should not be Flash-only sites.

We chose to do a Flash site for NASA because the site had to be available on the web and for museum kiosks. Flash was just the best choice. But we also had to create an XHTML-only version for accessibility reasons. For another site, we created a concrete calculator that helped buyers calculate the amount of concrete they needed for a given work area. The calculator had to be available on CD as well as the web. But the entire website didn’t need to be programmed in Flash. Only one portion of it was necessary.

In my opinion? Savvy website owners should quit falling for the marketing hype that businesses and overly zealous web developers propagate. I’ve been listening to this hype for many years, and the web analytics data, usability testing, and other user data have reinforced my opinion. There is a time and a place for Flash technology. Use it for the right reasons.

Search engines still are not that great with Flash-based content, in spite of all of the hype surrounding it. Flash-based content is typically not the best content.

Q: Recently, local search has been gaining much prominence with the google local ten pack showing up for generic searches such as lawyer, dentist, sushi etc. What are some best practices to use, when building landing pages to serve local customers?

ST: It’s all about users. What does your local target audience wish to know about your company when they call? When they walk in for that first appointment? When they call you again for more products and services?

Contact information and physical location is extremely important to local searchers. What is the best way to contact your company? What are your business hours?

To be honest, we do not build landing pages for local SEO. We build comprehensive sites for local businesses (and not in Flash). People want to know the main products and services your company offers. They always have questions – so an FAQs or a Customer Service section is always a part of that site. Why should people do business with your firm? A Benefits and/or Testimonials portion of a website really helps, especially since most local companies get more business via word-of-mouth referrals than websites.

We always try to give extra instructions on how to get to a business’s physical location – driving directions, nearby parking garages (if the business is located in a large city), etc.

The main physical location is always emphasized on the entire site, usually in a footer and via other means of optimization. But you can easily overdo it. Just do it well. People can always tell when a site is over-optimized. An over-optimized does not communicate a strong brand. It communicates desperation, I think.

I know that a local site can do well with a single landing page. But I would never put all of the aforementioned information on a single page.

Q: Back in 1999, forums and message boards were a prominent way of advertising one’s services. While still fairly potent for niche focused services, how can businesses utilize social media to achieve the same or great effects in a scalable fashion?

ST: Well, let me say this: a blog is a website like any other website. Content needs to be categorized, labeled, and archived appropriately, just like any other website.

Blogs and forums and message boards are really easy to set up, but what happens a few years down the road when content becomes difficult to manage? Few blog sites are prepared for this. SEO professionals just see the benefit of the quick turnaround time without thinking about the long-term, big picture.

Social media has existed for a long time. It’s just “hot” topic now as other things were “hot” a few years ago, like the whole long-tail thing. Social media sites are great as a means of distribution. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of wasted time and effort put into social media optimization.

I don’t think most people “get” social media. Like Flash, there is a time and a place for social media usage. You have to understand your audience and the type of social media consumer they are. Target the wrong one? That is a lot of time and energy wasted.

I am not a naysayer of social media. I’ve been a blogger (content provider) for a very long time. My firm and my client firms have greatly benefited from the social media’s distribution capabilities. But I’ve personally seen more companies waste time and money on social media optimization (and Flash optimization) that could have gone into more effective means of optimizing a site, such as coming up with a strong information architecture.

Q: The core fundamentals of good SEO still rely on well optimized on-page factors and content, with the addition of quality inbound links. Do you see this changing in the near future, given that the search engines are beginning to consider other signals such as user reviews, user generated content, and historical user behavior?

ST: These fundamentals have not disappeared and will never disappear, I believe. That is why they are called “fundamentals” – they ARE fundamentally important. But people and companies do not “get” the fundamentals. They still believe that inbound links trump on-the-page criteria when, in fact, these items should reinforce each other.

User reviews and user-generated content is overhyped. Some SEO firms pay people to write user reviews whether the reviewers actually purchased a product/service or not. User-generated content has been around long before Google came into existence. Who is going to write using keywords? Some people will – most won’t. You can’t train the world to be search-engine friendly copywriters, though it would be a noble cause, I think. J

People pay reviewers to write bad reviews about their competitors. And people who have a negative experience with a website tend to tell more people about that negative experience than people who had a great experience. The end result? Some really great products, services, and content get unfairly evaluated. It happens more frequently than any of us care to admit.

Finally, user behavior is not as developed as we like it to be. Most user behavior is based on log file data. It tells you how people act but not why people act. To make a search-friendly website, you need to understand both the how and the why. The why comes from usability testing, which is rather time consuming and not scalable. But man, is it accurate and can often indicate the exact opposite of what log file data, and even web analytics data, indicates.

In conclusion, I think there are plenty of areas for improvement in the search marketing industry. And kudos to those people who think outside of the box – the outliers – who want to see search industry evolve. I don’t know about you, but I sure am waiting for the next great web search engine. We’re long past due, don’t you think?

Like what you’ve read? Click here to subscribe to this blog!

Tagged with: Search Marketing Insights, seo, SES Toronto, Shari Thurow

About Dev Basu

Canadian SEO & Inbound Marketer. Founder at @PoweredbySearch. Professor @SenecaSoME. I love startups, fast cars, & smart people. Helping brands with #DemandGen.