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Lunch Break with Marshall Simmonds

Mike talks everything from search, the New York Times, and A Tribe Called Quest with Marshall Simmonds, founder and CEO of Define Media Group.

This week on Lunch Break with Mike King, we have a special guest: Marshall Simmonds, founder and CEO of Define Media Group. Marshall is a giant of the search industry who has been around since the beginning. Define Media Group previously managed all search strategy for the New York Times and About.com, along with dozens of other iconic brands with Marshall leading the way. Watch Mike and Marshall talk about search, the New York Times, and A Tribe Called Quest, with sidekick Norris Rowley.

Watch the video or read the transcript below.

Narrator: And now live from the iAcquire offices in New York City, it’s Lunch Break, with Michael King.

Mike King: Welcome back ladies and gentlemen to Lunch Break. Today we are joined by the fantastic, awesome, and amazing Marshall Simmonds from Define Media Group.

Mike: How are you sir?

Marshall Simmonds: I am well. I’m in the city. I’m having this fantastic lunch and Norris didn’t fix it. That’s next time.

Mike: And of course we have Norris Rowley our Manager of Market Research and Analytics.

Norris Rowley: Check out my hat.

Marshall: Might be out of frame right now. So come on back in.

Mike: All right. So, today we’re eating sandwiches from Lenny’s. What did you have?

Marshall: I had the vegetarian with avocado and pickles.

Mike: I had a turkey cheese concoction, as usual, and some Doritos and mac and cheese. It’s pretty cool. Lennysnyc.com, not sponsoring us, but the food is pretty good. So how are you today?

Marshall: I’m well. I saw the Packers get whipped up on last night by the Giants. I enjoyed that. I absolutely froze, and I’m good with cold. New York cold is unlike any other place in this world.

Mike: I’m pretty sure the Packers are Ram and Geraldine’s team.

Marshall: I didn’t tweet him anything last night, although I should’ve. I missed that opportunity.

Mike: Well I don’t like the Giants too much because I’m an Eagles fan.

Marshall: I didn’t know that.

Mike: I’m from Philadelphia, sir.

Marshall: But I didn’t know. So wait a minute. Cut. So, who’s your favorite quarterback of all time from Philly?

Mike: Ever?

Marshall: Yes.

Norris: Randall Cunningham.

Mike: Clearly.

Marshall: They still sell his jersey.

Mike: Of course. Why wouldn’t they?

Marshall: I didn’t realize. Rewind back to 1980. We were watching the Super Bowl. I’m nine years old and we’re in Boise, Idaho. I’m watching Oakland play Philly. You know [Jiles] and Harold Carmichael, and Wilbur Montgomery, and all those greats. They were playing and I’m looking. I’m like, you know what? I think I like Philadelphia’s jersey better. That was born and 30 years of heartache.

Norris: Wow.

Mike: That’s what it’s been.

Marshall: Following a team this long and now we’re in the trough that we’re in right now with them, sorry we’re going off tangent. I’m a Philly fan until the end.

Mike: Well, there it is.

Norris: I’m a Jets fan, so I have nothing to say.

Mike: We’re the better green by the way. We got a lot of questions today, actually. People really want to know what you know.

Marshall: You made all these up in the back?

Mike: I actually did not.

Norris: I was writing them up.

Mike: For sites like the New York Times, what kind of off page work needs to be done when there’s so many other sites linking to you; being that you’re like a PR 9?

Marshall: With enterprise level sites it’s a misnomer that you can do anything and that it works and that it plays well. It doesn’t work that way. The process that it takes to produce a package of content, that in and of itself, is pretty challenging. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s a 160 year old company. There’s a lot of procedure that is in place at the Times that still is in place. Trying to get something accomplished, whether it’s a technical fix, or something in production, or it’s a new package, it’s pretty challenging. I can’t tell you how many times I was called in the day before a new package was launching to be told that it was done in Flash, for example. It happens all the time.

Mike: I can relate to that.

Marshall: Communication breakdowns, interdepartmental communication was one of the biggest issues that we have to deal at theenterprise level, especially at The New York Times. While it may seem a pain. It goes out live, the world links to it, doesn’t mean that it’s search friendly, it doesn’t mean that it’s set up for success. Coming out of the gate that’s what our project was to get it upstream as possible into the process. That was hard. It took about five years.

Mike: That leads perfectly into my next question. What are some tips to get various departments that can help SEO to start thinking of how they can impact visibility?

Marshall: I would say physical location, first off. That’s kind of ironic coming from somebody whose company is a distributed workforce. But we’re very good, we’re hyper-communicative in that respect. We were talking about that before. I’ve seen newsrooms and editorial teams that worked best when they’re with each other and they’re literally sitting in the same room. The Times has done a decent job just four blocks from here, but they can do a better job. There are editorial teams that can do a better job by either sitting with the inbound marketing, the SEO group. Not in the way
that designates them as the SEO person, send it down the line. Let them bolt on their piece of it to this content package before it goes live. It can’t be like that, it needs to be integrated and there needs to be communication happening at every level, not just at the end result in the procedure. I would say that, I’m being a little vague to the answer, but that’s literally what I see as so important with editorial groups, is physical location first off.

Mike: I have a lot of experience working with enterprise, as well, and working with big agencies. One of the things that I’ve found to be the biggest issue is that there are so many people in the room with big egos. How do you navigate that, specifically.

Marshall: I have yet to find a company with a bigger ego than The New York Times.

Marshall: Fair enough.

Norris: Wow.

Marshall: I think that’s to their credit; because that’s what made them successful. It was also one of the biggest challenges when we started working there in 2005. They think because they produce it, that they should be successful because of who they are. There’s no doubt that it’s extremely challenging, but there’s nothing that knocks somebody down quicker than a little bit of data.

Search Metrics did a great bit of reporting on this, andthey do some very good analysis. You look at what rel=”author” is doing out there right now. Who’s taking advantage of rel=”author”? It’s not a lot of big companies. We’re trying, don’t get me wrong. We’re trying to get rel=”author” integrated but you have to set up a lot of a lot of pages to set up. Those that are using it, if you look at their chart, look at these names you have no idea who those people are. They’re getting a lot clicks and they have a lot of discoverability because they’ve done it. They got in early. That kind of data given to somebody who has that kind of ego to show that you may be doing this. But guess what, Billy Bob’s tech site is kicking your butt because they’ve integrated and executed faster than anybodyelse.

Mike: Shout out to Billy Bob.

Marshall: I own that site. You can buy it. I’m squatting on that domain. Billy Bob’s tech site. Here’s for enterprise.

Mike: Somehow you keep leading into my next question perfectly. What are the different ways and metrics you might present to different departments to get buy in for a project?

Marshall: If you don’t segment data appropriately, people aren’t going to open the email. Editorial teams need, with all due respect, they want to see graphics; pretty graphics that show arrows up down, success, failure. Failure’s a very good motivator too, and I don’t shy away from showing teams failure if they’ve accomplished that. I don’t know if it’s the right way to say that. If they have achieved failure, that’s a really good motivator. It’s a great data point. I just wrote an article about that at Search Engine Land. We like failure, because it’s just yet another data point along the way of learning about a particular topic, or demographic, etc. Upper management needs everything. They need that spreadsheet to open. Some folks in the company don’t need a spreadsheet, they just need the graphics to show what has worked and what hasn’t. Again, it gives credit to those who earned and it can also be a stick for those who haven’t.

Mike: Fair enough. We’re going to go completely left with this. What’s your favorite Tribe Called Quest song?

Marshall: Buggin’ Out.

Norris: Wrong answer; wrong answer. That question’s the wrong answer. It’s called Electric Relaxation. That’s the only one ever created, hands down.

Marshall: Ever?

Norris: Ever. It’s the best.

Mike: That’s one of my favorites. I don’t know if it’s the best.

Norris: It’s the best.

Mike: I would definitely say that’s the best album, though.

Norris: Yes it is. Yes it is.

Marshall: Here’s the thing about Buggin’ Out. That bass line that leads in, I don’t care who you are, you’ll start bouncing in the room whether you know it or not. Look, if it plays well in Bend, Oregon. I played it in Bend, Oregon. People will just start bouncing, like who is this? It’s A Tribe Called Quest. I’m just thankful that somebody exposed them, to me. Shout out to Matthew Brown and shout out to Jay Colson who exposed me to them when it was happening, because I would never would have known.

Mike: Matthew Brown is the man. We chop it up about hip hop a lot. I actually saw him a week or so ago in L.A. He’s a good guy. I like that guy. Do you guys still work together?

Marshall: I went to college with him. We’ve known each other for a long time.

Mike: Yes, he’s cool guy.

Marshall: For twenty years.

Mike: Wow. So we’re going to take a break, a word from our sponsors. We’ll be right back in about 20 seconds or less.

[commercial 10:02 to 10:31]

Mike: And we’re back. Still here with Marshall Simmonds. Is Q Tip a better solo MC or in a group?

Marshall: See, you turned me on to that. I’m going to have to say in a group. You can’t just pull out a piece and have it be the whole. They are built on three pillars of love, respect, and good music. I think that if you pull one of them out it’s great. You’ve always said that Q Tip has a really good solo career. I haven’t really listened to it enough or given it the time that is deserves. I miss people when I hear his voice.

Mike: I agree with that. I feel like Tribe isn’t like Wu Tang, where Method Man can stand alone. Q Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and even Jarobi, he didn’t do anything.

Norris: He’s a hype man.

Mike: He’s like the soul of the group. You need all four of them to be involved otherwise, like you said, it feels like something’s missing.

Norris: The thing is that with Wu Tang, and I’m sorry to say this for all the Wu Tang fans out there, when they’re all solo they all suck.

Mike: That is not true.

Norris: They all suck.

Mike: That is not true, sir. You can’t have on the hat that Ghostface made popular and say he sucks by himself.

Norris: Biz Markie made this popular.

Mike: No he didn’t.

Norris: Yes, he did. Either way, Wu Tang solo are not as good as Tribe solo. Phife did a decent album by himself.

Mike: I disagree.

Norris: When Shaheed did his solo thing with Lucy Pearl, it was different but it was okay. When Q tip did his solo thing it was all over the place. He did The Vibrant Thing, then he did the other record behind that, the Reminisce record. He did another record which was just singing, which is crazy. So he’s good by himself, however, you could tell when he’s rhyming he’s rhyming for too long, Q Tip, slow it down. You need somebody else to jump in. We need somebody else to come and have your back.

Norris: Okay we’re rapping for a minute thirty, where’s Phife?

Mike: I don’t feel that way about Wu Tang. Ghostface can hold a song by himself. Method Man can hold a song by himself.

Norris: But can you listen to a whole Ghostface album by itself?

Mike: Yes I did.

Norris: I cannot.

Marshall: I’m so out of my league.

Mike: How do publisher needs differ from brands when it comes to working with agencies?

Marshall: With publishers there’s usually an SEO team that goes around and services all the different properties. I think that if you centralize SEO, I think it can work. I also think that the decentralization model works really well too. That’s why I think that there needs to be an SEO person in every group, on every team, at every level of content creation. Because if it’s not, you’re not going to get it integrated in the core competency way that is necessary. I’m kind of addressing the question but I’m sidestepping it a little bit. Because with agencies, I feel like agencies will do the work and then hand it over. Then those teams have to either digest it and then they have to act on it. But there needs to be somebody there to translate. That’s why I think that you have to institutionalize SEO in the individual departments with a team that already exists. For example, we usually won’t take on a gig that doesn’t have somebody there that will take on SEO, that will own SEO. That they then turn into the evangelist in the company. That is a really important part of all of this. Not only that, but you need to have a tech resource that understands SEO dedicated to it, or it’s not going to work from an agency perspective or from a brand perspective or with publishing. That would be my answer. Is integration and execution at every level, or it just can’t be successful.

Mike: So what are the differences when approaching SEO strategy for a site pumping out news on fresh URLs within a domain, versus a site with aged URLs?

Marshall: With fresh content you run the risk. The Times produces about 1500 to 2500 pieces of content a week. That’s a lot. But, you run the risk of cannibalizing yourself. How many times can you write about the red carpet? How many times can you write about celebrities? How many times can you write about what some NBA star is doing, or somebody in the NFL? So you run that risk and you have to find new ways to be creative. You can only re-write headlines so much, too, that don’t compete with each other. That inherently is a problem where you have sites with older, legacy content. I think archives can be leveraged much more often than people realize. We still continue for a lot of the sites we work with to push a lot of content to archives but they have to be done. Meaning that, when new changes come out like a schema changes or either rel=”author”, you have to go back and do some work. It doesn’t mean that once it’s archived it’s forgotten because that still has legs. It won’t draw a lot of immediate traffic. But over a period of two years, five years, ten years, that’s a lot of traffic that you can sell advertising around. Inventory is always at a minimum and that’s another way to do it is to have a team or a person dedicated on Friday afternoons to go leverage some of that old content.

Mike: Good point. What was the most difficult SEO project at The New York Times to implement?

Marshall: SEO.

Mike: But didn’t you do the sixth click free or something?

Marshall: Yes. We put up a couple different pay-walls. We did Times Select in 2005 right when we were coming out. We were given this heaping pile of crap that said, “Guess what, we need you to do SEO; but we’re going to put our important priority content behind a wall that you have to register for.” The world went crazy about it. What we had to do at that point was we came in and we were immediately out on our heels. What we had to was basically model out what it would like if we took the wall down to justify our existence of SEO. It’s really a hard, difficult place to be in on day one when you’re in a new career. We did that. There was a lot of spreadsheets. There was lot of projections and it worked. To The Times’ credit, that’s a big shift and to turn and to say, “Okay let’s take down the wall.” They did it and relatively quickly. It was up for 18 months. Kudos for them for being able to see that and make that strategic decision. That wasn’t easy to do.

Mike: How do you get writers of big publishers to write for both users and SEO?

Marshall: By getting them to believe in SEO. That is through data, through giving them keyword research to identify where their target market really is. To show them it’s not popular because you’re writing about it’s, it’s popular because they want it. If you give them that data to say, you know what, people when they’re talking about Shake Shack, I’m saying that because it’s right there. What they’re looking for is their hot fudge banana milkshake. They’re not just looking for their burgers because their burgers suck.

Norris: I plead the fifth.

Marshall: Their fries used to be okay, but that hot fudge banana milkshake is why people want it. You get that information back to that writer. The writers that are compelled by that data are the ones that are going be successful and they will continue to come to you. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works well.

Mike : Cool. We have to pay some bills, back after these message.

[commercial: 18:53 - 19:08 ]

Mike: And we’re back. Marshall, which Tribe song do you think would best describe your experience in the SEO world?

Marshall: I’m going to have to say Problems. Problems.

Mike: Good choice. Good choice.

Marshall: There’s some high points to that song and there’s some low, low points to that song. I think that’s probably it. We were talking about this before with SEO, you have to have levity first and then SEO second. If you don’t keep your perspective about what’s going on in this industry. Google moving the goalpost is okay. Everybody can scream about it. You can be pissed about it. But guess what, that’s job security. Because the client’s going to come back to you and say, “What are we going to do now?” They’re just going to move the goalpost here and they’re going to offer you
schema and they’re going to offer you rel=”author” and rel=”author” is hard to implement for some clients. But guess what. It gives you something to do and it gives you new opportunities. Google has been doing this and they’re going to keep doing it.

Mike: In keeping with the idea of experiences, how did your experiences running search in-house for large brands influence you as you were building Define?

Marshall: Experience around understanding how each company works. Each company produces content in a very, very different way. Getting your arms around that is essential to understanding what will work and what won’t. If you throw a bunch of keyword research data at a publishing team or at a news team, it doesn’t matter. Your position in the company will be compromised. The data that you present them won’t be respected or acted upon. But, if you find a company which that works well with.

A lot of publishers are not necessarily metrics driven. They’re not metrics driven and usually inventory and ad sales is separate from editorial teams. That’s okay to understand. We have to operate in between. It’s about finding those pain points of how editorial teams work, and how product teams work, and how they release content. Are they working through agile, are they working through a bunch of guys in a dungeon somewhere and they’re just given on a project by project basis. There’s so many different ways that tech groups execute, too. It’s incredibly important to understand that or nothing will get done. All roads lead through tech, no matter what we say here about editorial teams. All roads are going to lead through tech eventually. To understand how each technical department works, I think, is a path to success. That’s a cliché but it’s true.

Mike: This question comes from Joe Griffin. He says, “Marshall, us enterprise marketers have to do a better job of reaching and educating marketing executives about search. Any tips?”

Marshall: Yes. I think you have to get into the lower decks. It has to be grass root. It has to be organic. Because if you don’t get the people that are producing content, if you don’t get their buy-in; it’s never going to sell. Now, I understand Joe’s question, obviously, is about marketing and the marketing level. I think that’s important too. But ultimately, though, the content creators have to buy in, and that requires a lot of education.

One thing that we did at The Times that worked really was we would do these educational lunch and learns. Or we would do an hour training programs where we would just sit people in and just go through a PowerPoint deck. That taught be a lot about doing PowerPoint, is that people don’t want to sit there and listen to you talk at them. People want to see experiences, they want to see failures, they want to see what’s successful, what’s working, and what’s new. That’s what’s driven a lot of getting buy-in at the upper levels. It only takes one C level manager to say we need SEO. Then it’s your job to get into the lower decks and build that up, to build up that mindshare, market share internally so others get in line. Because then the data will show that it’s working, or the data will show that it isn’t working. That’s how I found the best way to get by in with marketing managers. Because, you’re right, there’s a lot that they don’t believe. Honestly, that’s not something that I’m interested in working on, but sometimes you have to deal with that.

Mike: To that point, why aren’t there more SEOs that become CMOs?

Marshall: What do you think?

Norris: I don’t’ know. That’s a great question, though.

Marshall: It is a good question. What do you think?

Mike: I think it’s because somebody like you. I’m rising through the ranks pretty quickly or doing my thing but I’m going to make a lot more money just starting my own thing rather than staying here and dealing with all these politics. But, I think for more people to embrace SEOs somebody going to have to stick it out and become that CMO.

Marshall: Yes, who is that person?

Mike: I keep telling people it’s me, but I don’t know. I want to see SEO grow up, and I think that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take a few guys out of this new era to stick it out in a big company, working for that big brand and eventually become that CMO; but, enough about me.

Marshall: I think it’s a valid point, though.

Mike: How many more years do you see printed newspapers still on the streets of major US cities and what’s stopping them from going purely online now?

Marshall: I think print’s going to be around for a really long time. The Times knows, they’ve done the research. They know that people like the visceral reaction, feeling, day to day routine of getting the newspaper, getting something tactile, opening it, and going through it on Sunday. I think it’s going to be generational issue.

Norris: When I was working at Nielsen we had newspaper clients all the time. More so when I was working there were no tablets at the time. That wasn’t the main factor. The main factor for them was laptops and corporate devices, things of that nature. They were worried about people shying away from the newspapers and just visiting their website. However, what we found was people in smaller cities like newspapers. They like to get a newspaper. They like to get a local newspaper that they can’t get from a website because it’s mom and pop city that has a thousand people. They can print a newspaper for a thousand people and it’s easy to get and it gives you information on the fly.

But bigger cities, younger generations, people pull out their iPhones and view The New York Times on their iPhone or on Flipbook or some kind of app that shows them everything they need in one fell swoop instead of having a newspaper. Like you said there’s a generational gap but there’s also a geographic gap. A lot of people within [inaudible 26:13] they’re cave people when it comes to media, to be very honest with you. They like physical media. They don’t like digital stuff. They like to have a CD in their hand, have an album in their hand, a physical newspaper. For the most part, that’s America on the whole. Everything in Japan is digital. It’s hard to get something physical in your hand. Because in the U.S. they still sell records. Mike is the problem.

Marshall: Or the solution, or the solution.

Norris: But there’s still people that buy records. There’s still a group of people that want that physical media in their hand to say, you know what when the zombie apocalypse happens I can put my old album on the record player and listen to it. People want something physical because at the end of the day, you start to think about it. How many albums do I own? I don’t know, I have to check iTunes. But a lot of people look at their shelves and see x amount of albums.

Mike: First of all, you have a bunch of CD’s.

Norris: I do have a bunch of cds, now shut your mouth. [laughs] But people want something in their hand and the newspaper provides that regardless of how anything else may be.

Mike: So the idea of records and CD’s and stuff, without having something physical you don’t really have a relationship with that music. I enjoy buying a CD and opening it up and looking through the liner notes. Who was the producer on this? Who recorded it? It’s like you have more of a repoire with that music. Whereas in this digital age you just download everything, the eight second test. I don’t even like this

Norris: Even people like myself, sorry to say this, I will scan through an album and download one song and not download the album. It’s people like me, in this digital age. They’re catering to my tendencies. I like this one song of the album that’s $9.00, I’m only paying $.99 for this one song. When five years ago I would have had to buy that whole CD, be upset, and have this one song on repeat all day long.

Mike: Here’s a flip side to that. When I first got the De La Soul, Stakes Is High record, I had it on tape. The first time I listened I though, I hate this. But being that I had to spend $10.00 on this tape and it was the only tape I had until the next time I got paid. I had to stick with the record. It’s one of my favorite records, so we may be missing out on our modern day classics because we don’t have the attention span anymore.

Marshall: I think the overarching theme is browse ability. I think that’s the disconnect between the web and what we’re talking about here, print and CD’s. If you don’t have that CD or you don’t have that magazine. I absolutely love Wired magazine and I love just browsing. I didn’t know that I was interested in this. I even read the advertisements and I don’t read any advertisements. But I read them in Wired because they’ve got me so dialed that I’m going to read about Crash Plan, just because it’s there. It’s the same concept with CD’s too, that you’re going to browse. I think that’s still a disconnect between the web and print. How do you make a site easier to browse? That’s a really cheesy way to say it but that’s true.

Marshall: Is that my phone? That’s really loud. I apologize. I did not silence my cell phone.

Norris: Let me just say that’s a nice ringtone.

Marshall: It’s funny. I walked in here and my watch stopped. It’s like a temporal anomaly in the iAcquire office. I walked in like what time is it, I’m not on, what the hell?

Mike: What trends will 2013 bring for SEO algorithmic-wise, big conference topics?

Marshall: I don’t know man. I hate this question. The reason why is because i don’t care. I want Google News to be better, let me just say that. Can they give some love to this stepchild that is Google News and could be a great product if they would put some time and effort into it. Those guys work really hard to make it a good resource. I still feel like it could be something a lot different. I wish Google Reader would still have a little bit of power behind it, too. I still think that there’s some opportunity there where Google needs to focus on their core products instead of selling ads. So what we can’t do is get mired into the day to day traffic analysis because that’ll drive you crazy. That’s just a rabbit hole that you can’t get into. You know this from Nielsen , you’ve got to look at trends, but you can look at rolling three month data. Because I think that’s important to see when did back to school happen and when do we know that it starts? When do we know that our demographic goes on vacation? Does it marry closely with the school calendar? I see a lot of our traffic trends seem to go with when kids are in and out of school. Summertime definitely plateaus. Then making sure that at least there is growth year over year from summer to summer; because you can still have growth in down months and that’s a concept that we like to focus on.

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