Interview with Hugo Guzman of Zeta Interactive

by on October 27, 2010 | posted in Link Building Interviews

Hugo Guzman is one of my favorite SEO bloggers – he has a fresh take on SEO, and it seems, he’s still rather underrated in terms of reputation. His specialty is corporate and enterprise SEO strategy – so the guy knows advanced tactics. However, it’ll become clearly apparent in this interview – he is not quite the Sci-Fi buff that Garrett French is.

Also, before we get to the Guzman goodness, let me note that I am in a job (and state) transition right now – so posts may be a little light for the next couple weeks. I’ll be back with more thorough SEO goodness sooner rather than later.

1. I’m a relatively new face in the SEO field – three years of experience. Right now, I love what I do – but I see these people for 15 to 20 years experience and I wonder – and want to ask them – does this job ever get old? So, given that  – how many years of pure experience do you have? – and given that number, how would you describe your elation with the job, where you see that going, and the thought of SEO as a 30-year career – which, looking forward, it can easily be for some people.

I first tried my hand at SEO in 2002, so I guess I’m going into my ninth year of experience. And the good news is that I still love my job! That said, I think that the main reason I enjoy what I do so much has to do with my efforts to understand other marketing facets as opposed to getting stuck in an SEO vacuum. Incidentally, I’m not just referring to obvious activities that are known to have a direct connection to SEO like analytics, paid search, social media, web design, and web development. I’ve also delved heavily into other channels like email marketing, display, behavioral targeting, SMS marketing. Interestingly enough, these channels can also have unexpected connection to SEO.

2. On the same wavelength, SEO as an entity is approaching a mature stage of development. In pure awareness, it’s still relatively young – and growing – but how much it changes on that fact alone is something interesting to think about. Do you think company buyin and realistic expectations will improve over time, or will we always be relatively stuck in an industry where people think its #1 or bust, and that rankings are definitely coming in three months? Is there any potential that SEO spend will regress somewhat in the “instant impact” field, where even those people grow to realize instant returns aren’t possible – or will there always be a steady lottery-ticket type spend in SEO?

I think that the answer to that question depends on the type of client caliber you’re dealing with. At the enterprise level, most companies have much more realistic expectations when it comes to the ROI that SEO can provide as well as the amount of time it takes to see those returns. When dealing with small to medium size business there appear to be a lot more naive decision makers who either have unrealistic expectations or simply no real understanding of what SEO really is.
That said, I don’t expect SEO spend to regress anytime soon (as in not in the next decade). Why? Because right now, we still live in a world where the vast majority of advertising spend still goes to traditional, offline channels like print, radio, and television. As that share of advertising dollars continues to shift to online channels like SEO, the spend will continue to grow at a healthy pace.

3. Is there anything that particularly irks you within the field? Some examples of areas that could “irk” you are algorithmic tendencies, what color hats most people wear, SEO blogging, outside perception of SEO, and etc.

Frankly, I could care less about things like algorithmic tendencies, hat colors, SEO blogging drama (or misinformation) or what outsiders think about SEO. I guess you could say that I come from the “hard core gangster” school of thinking, as in “I was given this world, I didn’t make it” and “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

All’s fair in love and SEO, so rather than expend my energy on negativity or the ups and downs of the algorithm I focus on improving my business skills (not just my SEO or general marketing skills). I can’t control everything out there, so I try and focus on the things that are within my sphere of influence as well as things that will deliver the best long-term return on my investment.

My advise to young SEOs that get caught up on these kinds of things is to suck it up and focus on the day-to-day stuff that really matters. Complaining or sulking won’t give you a competitive edge of any kind.

4. Rand recently released a post on SEOMoz about Google eliminating the power of the exact match domain. This seems to be a problem, but I think it’s somewhat debatable as to what size a problem this really is – or otherwise, how much Google should algorithmically push exact match domain’s power away from their current standard. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought before this that this was unfair, and was about go as far as saying that Google was approaching an algorithmic utopia – i.e., their algorithm was starting to get pretty damn good. I wonder how much Google – given a static, non-socially influenced internet (not having to incorporate things like likes or other random Twitter data into the equation at different points in time) – will they continue to need to drastically change the algorithm? Is Google desperately far away from perfect? How far are they from being able to touch the ceiling? Are there any other huge deficiencies you can point to in the algorithm?

I don’t think Google’s algorithm is anywhere near perfect, nor will it ever be (I don’t think there’s such a thing as algorithmic perfection, but that’s a discussion for another day). For starters, I think that Google’s algorithm is still heavily dependent on anchor text. Secondly, and more importantly, artificial intelligence (search is a form of AI) is still in its infancy. For example, current search algorithms are focused on analyzing text-only queries, whereas future algorithms will factor in things like imagery and voice inflection. These additional layers of analysis will allow search algorithms to finally achieve some semblance of human-like semantic analysis. A text-only search engine is incapable of deciphering whether a query for “paris hilton” denotes a desire to find out about blond pseudo-celebrity or a hotel in the capital of France.

5. If we jump forward ten years, will Bing rank #1 for “search engine”? I’m kidding – but what I’m really asking, is how do you see the search market evolving in ten years? Will Bing still be kicking around? Will we start seeing another player emerge? Is there any room for a real data-play like Blekko or otherwise? Will we at least ever evolve to the point where we have to stop optimizing for Google – and start worrying about what effects we’re going to make on the other engines as well?

Honestly, I try not to spend too much time thinking about theoretical scenarios like these. There’s simply not much ROI in it (there are so many real-world strategic and tactical considerations to tackle in the hear and now). Moreover, it’s impossible to factor in how technological advancements in AI or new players in the industry might impact the search landscape. Remember; had you asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have had no real way of knowing that Google would be in the search engine mix, much less the dominant behemoth.

Moreover, I think that we’re already living in a world where the most important part of search engine optimization has little do with technical optimization. Things like public relations, social media engagement, and just having a real kick-ass product, service, or employee base can end up being the tipping point (as opposed to agonizing over how optimizing an H1 is going to impact things).

6. Thinking about how long it takes to rank site, is this date continuously elongating on the most competitive SERPs? Definitely, Google somehow incorporates things like freshness into their algorithm, but there’s real room for certain businesses to sit and stay in business in the SERPs for decades, thus accumulating millions of links in areas that aren’t even friendly to them. Is this something that could come to light in ten years, where literal “monopolies” seem to appear on the SERPs, or is this a misguided view? Will “old, crusty links” start being “old, non-value passing links”? Surely, algorithms evolve – but for a domain that continues maintenance link building from now until eternity, what chance does a player that arrives twenty years late really have?

Again, I think that it’s very ill-advised to try and project what search engines will do 10 years from now without factoring technological advance and AI refinement. For all we know, links could be a minor or insignificant factor in 10 years. Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that when it comes to link-building, quantity does not equal dominance. For example, perform a search for the phrase “online payments.” You’ll notice that despite having literally millions of inbound links, is outranked by competitors that have far fewer links. In today’s search engine game, authority and anchor text (especially anchor text) trump sheer quantity almost every time.

Hugo Guzman is the Vice President of SEO & Social Media at Zeta Interactive, a multi-channel interactive agency that caters to enterprise-level clients. Follow him on Twitter here.

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