As promised, here are more excerpts from my interview with SEOmoz Chief Executive Rand Fishkin. They’ve been edited a bit for space and clarity.
Q: How long will the SEO industry be this important, if search engines get more precise and start giving people exactly what they’re looking for?
A: There’s big limitations to search engines. Some folks in the industry will say search engines will never advance to the point where you won’t need to have some sort of [SEO] strategy. I would agree with that to some degree.
One, there’s a competitive side to it — not everyone can have the top one to three ranking, the search engines have to order those results by something. There are always going to be people who are attempting to push the envelope in what they can do to make those things happen. It’s the same way the offline marketing world works … so there’s going to be competition, and because of the competition, there’s going to be people engaged in whatever the competitive practice is that helps you do better.
However, a ton of search engine optimization work right now is accessibility, right? Just making sure that you’re not hiding content from the search engines, that you’re putting it in ways that they can access.
It’s estimated that Microsoft thinks they’ve got around 20 billion pages in their index, and the estimate is that the Web contains more than 100 million pages. What’s the difference? … There’s limitations to how content is presented — there’s content in Flash, there’s content in images, there’s content in Java applets, there’s content that’s only in Ajax …
When folks talk about search engines advancing their technology, maybe that’s what they-re thinking — that much more of the Web will become accessible and crawlable. But as far as never needing someone to help with that competitive angle, that’s tough for me to imagine. The guy who is ranking No. 4 is always going to want to be ranking rank No. 1, and there’s got to be some way for him to do that, and someone who will help him do that.
Q: I wonder if business models of the search companies will change that minimizes the importance of SEO, maybe a hybrid of paid and unpaid results.
A: Depending on the search query, you’re getting between 15 and 30 percent of the traffic clicks on paid vs. organic, so organic’s always going to be the lion’s share there
Q: What’s to stop Microsoft, Google and Yahoo from saying to companies, instead of putting all this effort into SEO, why not work directly with us?
A: Yahoo has their search-submit program, which is a paid inclusion program, so you pay them for organic listings. But all you get is the fact that they promise to spider and index you. They don’t promise any particular rankings. The search engines have all found, the more they move away from paid relationships, the more relevant and the better experiences their searchers have. … The search engines are probably unlikely to switch back to that paid-only or more-paid system because they’ll lose market share to their competitors where their users are having a better experience.
Q: What about SEO — do you expect them to offer more SEO services?
A: We’ve almost seen it go the other way…. An engineer friend of mine with an unnamed search engine, we were hanging out> He said, dude, I had to take this call with some big Fortune 500 company because they spend so many hundreds of millions on advertising. Of course the ad guys are like, “Hey, get on the phone with these guys and tell them why they’re not ranking for any of these terms.” He’s like, “Gosh, I don’t have to do this, this isn’t my job.”
Q: So they’re providing some premium service on the side?
A: It wasn’t premium service. He had to take the call and talk to them: “Well, we can’t reach any of your content because it’s behind this board. You should go work with an SEO who can help you, you need to make your Web site more accessible.” Which is not all that different from someone saying blind people can’t access your Web site, go find a usability expert who can make it readable on a screen for them.
Q: What’s your prediction for the future of Microsoft’s Live Search?
A: Tough call for me. I get to see things from Live that other people don’t get to see so I’m not sure I feel entirely comfortable or safe giving my two cents there. I really like a lot of people on the team. I think the latest upgrade they did with the searchification program and all that is a significant step forward. By my estimation they still have a long way to go to catch with Google from the relevancy side. But I could see them getting close to even if not even with Google’s relevancy and search experience. The biggest problem they’re going to continue to encounter is branding and whether they can have people think of them the same way people think of Google.
Q: How many SEO guys are really focused on Microsoft or Yahoo?
A: It’s not that you’re not focused on them. What we all try and do is say what are the reasons I might be ranking on Google but not Microsoft or Yahoo.
Q: Are there any hot topics in SEO besides Google’s PageRank?
A: I think paid links is going to be a hot topic for many months to come. It depends on who you’re talking to…. For clients or for companies who are trying to break into the field, one of the big things we talk about now is vertical search. It used to be you do any search at Google, you get 10 blue links. Now you get images, you get maps, you get instant answers, You get the weather with these little pictures. So there’s all sorts the folks saying, “Gee, the search engines are trying to fill so much more of their results with other kinds of information, information that’s coming from other sources.” So inclusion in local, in maps, images.
Q: So you have to optimize for each one of those search silos bundled into universal search results?
A: Depending on who you are and what you’re doing, you’re probably going to have to do at least some. It has become a huge part of what you do.
Q: It almost seems like Google’s universal search has become it’s own take on SEO — you’re searching for, say, “Transformers,” and it gives you standard search results plus images plus showtimes. Can you compete with that because it seems like they’ve basically claimed the top of the first pag. Are you going to be then fighting for the bottom of the first page, or the top of the second?
A: No, you’re going to be fighting in product search results or in map search results or in image search results as opposed to just in Web search results.
Q: Because those are the ones Google is going to grab and put at the top?