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SEO and analytics; A chat with Marshall Sponder

Written by David Harry   
Monday, 02 February 2009 07:55

Over the last while there has been a great deal of talk in the SEO world about a more prominent roll for web analytics - we've even covered some Google Analytics tips here on the Trail. Given all this interest I wanted to sit down and talk with a fellow I've been reading for some time now - Marshall Sponder of Web Metrics Guru - let's saddle up and see what we can learn from one of the top minds in the game shall we?


Getting to know the Web Metrics Guru

Dave; I’m not sure how familiar with the world of SEO you may be, but over the last few years analytics are playing an ever increasing role. Have you had much opportunity to apply your considerable skill set to analysis of organic search traffic?

Marshall;  I'm pretty familiar with Search Engine Optimization; first, getting my feet wet and experimenting with SEO in 2002 when I picked up a book by Robin Nobles on Search Engine Optimization; I found it very much like the Unix System Admin work though most of the 1990's.  I was pulling myself up by my bootstraps from the last Recession (mild compared to what is happening to us now) and 9/11 (as described by a two part interview I did with my fellow web analyst blogger, Anil Batra, late in 2007, part 1 and part 2) and was looking to reinvent myself and found SEO.

Soon after, in 2003, I got a job at doing SEO and Analytics reporting and met Bill Hunt, who became a good friend and mentor to me; Bill opened some doors to me and I also subsisted on SEO freelance work outside of IBM, which a series of sites in a variety of verticals such as architecture, entertainment, along with the enterprise SEO work I did at IBM.  I also met Mike Moran, who was one of my first bosses at IBM and, certainly, one of the best bosses one could have at IBM.  Mike Moran and Bill Hunt wrote Search Engine Marketing, Inc.  which is now in it's second edition - I read the manuscripts and was a technical reviewer of the first edition.   

Also, early in 2004, I began my association with Robin Nobles and John Alexander as Advanced SEO Chat Moderator for Search Engine Workshops, an association I still maintain (though I haven’t conducted many chat sessions lately – too busy).    In addition I am a frequent attendee of Search Engine Strategies (New York and San Jose – see day 2 and day 3 agendas), often covering SES as a Blogger and speaker.  Same holds true for Emetrics Summit (both San Francisco and DC) where I’m often invited to Blog or Speak. As a result, I have met or personally know many of the influentials both in Search Marketing and Web Analytics (conversely, they know me).

Analytics and Art - the Marshall Sponder experience

Dave; Ok, so at this point where is you headspace with search optimization and where it’s headed? What’s your vision if you will….

I (have thought) a lot about SEO/SEM and developed my own ideas and approach -here's some samples of what I consider to be my best writings on SEO and SEM;

  1. In Social Media Search Engine Optimization Keyword Research I put forward that Search and Social Media could be merged, but the keyword tools that exist today aren't any good for Social Media because they don't capture conversations  - and people don't generally talk in keywords.  What worked well for text retrieval may not work well for the Social Web, and that needs to be considered, and perhaps, new tools need to be built, that don't exist, yet, or are just on the drawing board, as we speak.
  2. And I'm liking the Google Search Wiki though some others, don't even though the novelty wore off, and I'm not doing as much with SearchWiki as I planned - the direction is right - and it suggests SEO as we know it, is close to obsolete  - and replaced by a new form of SEO, I hinted at it in this post.
  3. Meanwhile, in The Google Economy where I developed an idea, along with Sebastian Wenzel, a good friend, member of the Social Media Committee at the WAA and my business partner in our blog network - that Google is not just a business, but it's own Economy, that's why Google can appear to do well every quarter, even now.  Sebastian also authors, a well read blog on Web Analytics and SEO/SEM.

Those are few fairly recent posts - but there's a lot more where this comes from at and blogs.


Dave; Nice, you’d make a great SEO with your tendency to link and all… so you’ve had some experience with analytics and SEO it would seem.

Marshall;  I gave a talk about a year ago at a NYC SEO Meetup on  Search Engine Optimization metrics that you can pull out of Google Analytics and while I'd add some things to it now, most of it still applies and here's a public link to that presentation

I used some of the very accessible features of Google Analytics, what I knew, and what I thought might be important for SEO work, and that gave me a way to look at the analytics for a site and answer very specific questions - in fact, the more specific the question, the easier it is to answer, I have found.  I could go in more detail, since I've also done a lot of link building, semantic analysis type stuff, keyword research, but that's too much for one interview.



Dave; Sure, I’d love to have you back, he he… Ok, so as personalized search becomes more prevalent with engines like Google, rankings have become elusive and less reliable from one data center to another. This, in part, plays into SEOs having a greater interest in analytics. We traditionally track search referrer growth, search term referrer growth as well as related conversion data.

One of the problems, for me at least, is that SEO people are often far and away from the people making the decisions that affect conversions. How valuable do you feel relating search traffic data to conversions is?

Marshall; Not all conversion behaviour is related to Search - that's something I've been speaking about for over two years. In fact, Search is good for people who don't know what they are looking for and keep refining their search query, till they finally settle on a search result they're happy with, or give up.  But Search doesn't do anything once the Searcher reaches the website.  From that point on (once the Searcher arrives) it has more to do with Persuasion Architecture (the stuff that and talk about).

Search is still King!


Dave; Ok, this is what I have felt; that our job is to bring the targeted traffic… it seems that you’re not a search evangelist?

Marshall;  It's been thought Search Traffic (paid or organic) is the most valuable type of traffic, is the most self directed, have the lowest bounce rate of any type of visitor, stays the longest on a site, converts the best, and so on; I consider these notions as dogmas that are often not borne out when you examine the data.

Under certain circumstances, a visitor coming from Twitter will stay longer on the site, be much more self directed, and convert better (though the bounce rate will often be higher as a referral from a tinyurl, facebook link, friendfeed link, knows exactly what they are looking for (more so than a visitor who comes from Google).   However, Social Media can't yet scale up and produce massive amounts of traffic needed for most businesses to consider it seriously - so for the time being, Search is still King, but maybe, not forever.


Dave; Ok, so you’re still a fan of search traffic?

Marshall; (Yes) Organic Search traffic does deliver excellent results - except often, it's not coupled with business policy and business processes, as you mentioned.  Last year, I was looking at a clients' site and noticed their traffic increased and decreased by 10% every third month - otherwise it was steady and slowly ramping upward.   

Using the analytics I determined most of the traffic gain/loss came from two sub-domains related to content on the site that periodically expired (for example, a job posting).  When content has a time to live and then must be removed, you need more content - and the business needs to allow for that - but if it can't then your traffic will zig zag, no matter how much SEO you do; this is a case where there's a limit to what a Search Optimization professional can do.  

Bill Hunt and Mike Moran, however, made the argument in Search Engine Marketing, Inc.   that search needs to be integrated within the organization and move closer to the point of creation (of the content) and, generally, up the totem pole in the Organizational Chart - and I see evidence of that happening. 


Dave; that makes total sense, always something I’ve believed is a tighter integration of all links in the chain. Is this something you’re watching for in the space?

Marshall; Certainly it's happening with SEO/SEM, to some extent, and with Web Analytics, to some extent (not enough, in my opinion) but not yet with Social Media.    At the end of the day, in 5 years, all three disciplines will probably end up merging and become an, as yet, unnamed profession - that's my best guess.  As this all happens, Search will get the respect it deserves and will get closer to the seat of power, at least, in some organizations.


Dave; Let’s go in a new direction; one Trail reader asked about setting up conversion funnels (from organic search to conversion) – do you feel Google analytics does a good job of this? Any tips or pointers on that?

The example given was a real estate website, lead to conversion funnel. Do you have a preferred analytics application for those situations?

Marshall; Well Google Analytics could do a good job of this, especially now, if you planned out your site and conversion events ahead of time, tagged your site properly, set up your goals, knew what a conversion was worth, and managed to track cross-channels.  

If you don't do this, no analytics solution will help that much.   And it's not the analytics solution as much as the particular Analyst that makes meaning of the data.

Having said this, it may well be that Google Analytics, as it stands now, is still not the best tool for Search Analytics; I've seen Spotlight tags (DoubleClick) along with good planning and analytics that are set up well to track data, works better than Google Analytics, along (with little planning). With Google Analytics new custom segmentation and custom reporting - and it's integration with AdWords, you could get excellent analytics if the setup work has been done properly and in advance

Depending on what kind of data you want, at what level of granularity, Google Analytics might not give you everything you want.  I used to use KeywordMax for several of my clients as it broke down conversions by type (Paid/Organic/Direct/Campaign) and recorded every click and many details that are useful, but don't show up that often in analytics platforms (ip address, location, exact time of click, actual term of click, latency, etc). 

What tools you use depends on what you want, what you need, what you’re willing to pay for, and what you’re willing to settle for.



Dave; Entirely sensible, SEO is all about unique approaches to each situation. Back to mining your brain, I was reading your blog and you mentioned;

“I'll do what I can to develop standards for SEO and SEM, Engagement Metrics, RIA Application Measurement standards, 3D Virtual Worlds Metrics standardization and anything else the WAA wants me to work on.” From - A letter from Robin Nobles

Have you worked much in this area? What elements would you be looking at as far as SEO related analytics standards?

Marshall; At the Web Analytics Association I founded the Social Media Committee were my co-chairs and committee members, worked on Social Media Standards and the work has been carried on by the Standards committee.  The original Social Media Committee I founded grew to over 70 members and we started focusing on Standards on the suggestion of a good friend, Gary Angel, co-founder of, one of the best firms that merges Analytics and SEO/SEM, as shown in this video I filmed in June 2007 and the first set of Social Media standards are due to be released in draft form sometime this year.

Glorified Google

Dave; Well, considering how much SEOs are talking about analytics and it being my motivation to talk to you, is some type of standardization worth doing?

Marshall; its good point - maybe there ought to be ... a set of standards for Organic Search, much as there are for Web Analytics.  There are many people who write about Organic SEO, there are a good many books on it - but I'm not sure there's anything like what the WAA planned to do with Web Analytics and then, Social Media Standards.  

SEO Standards work probably ought to be worked on by SEMPO but I don't know what progress has been made in SEO Standards by SEMPO. I look forward to working with SEMPO's Research Committee and seeing how I can help.


Dave; Glad to hear that… Analytics really needs to be a part of ALL online marketing these days. I thought this an interesting point (and post) as we search optimizers are defined by keywords, phrases and concepts. You said,

“…. your keywords would need to constantly evolve. If you're revolving around conversation and what people are talking about your focus will always shift even if the main idea is still the same. “

 How often would you suggest KW research/audits would be done? Or would you like to see a more live or fluid program to capture trends?

Marshall; Good question. Your keyword phases would need to evolve as the "conversations" you’re tracking evolve.  Here's an example;
Suppose we use Radian6 or SM2 to track conversations (as I suggested in that post you cite) and, assuming the "Sub Prime Mortgage Meltdown" of last spring turned into the "$700 Billion Dollar Bailout" of last fall (pre presidential election), continues as "TARP" and ends up as the "Stimulus Package" or "$825 Billion Stimulus package" - your keywords will evolve as your conversation shifts - yet it may revolve around the same issues.

Arguably, even with Semantic Analysis, Google can not do a very good job of tracking that evolution - because Google was never designed for that purpose – Google is a glorified text retrieval tool that we turned into an oracle - but Google just spits back an altered version of our own questions (i.e.: "did you mean this" or "did you mean that") - it doesn't know anything about conversations, yet.


Dave; ‘Glorified text retrieval tool’ ha ha haha… I know a few information retrievers that would be hurt by that one. What of new tools, I’d imagine you think about next gen…?

Marshall; I see an evolution to a new set of tools that is designed around SearchWiki, for example. Let's suppose that in two years time, all ranking programs are totally meaningless since everyone sees a different set of results - based on search history, web history and SearchWiki, (with SearchWiki annotations being more and more important).   Most page optimization and linking will become less important, since weighting will depend on the person doing the search and the query, itself.

At that point, maybe SEO will become focused on how to write the annotations on a url so as to get the best treatment from Google (since Yahoo and MSN are now almost irrelevant) - or  maybe we'll need ranking tools that extract the annotations and organize the data for you, against urls.   Maybe we'll need to be trained on how to merge SEO/SEM, Public Relations, Social Media, Web Analytics and Business data, all into one ball of wax - do those tools exist today?  Not yet.

I'll leave you with a quote from a recent post Interesting Cafe @Clickable where Frank Rose of said of the early days of Punk Rock, which he lived throughPunk Rock, Frank Rose was saying, anyone could do it (you didn't need to know how to dance or sing) and while the movement died it was reborn and continued with User Generated ContentYouTube, etc and (I found this an interesting analogy - one that was quite unexpected, who would have guessed that the early days of Rock and Roll have so much in common with Social Media?)

We're all like the Ramones - we have talent, but maybe, we're just putting out our ideas, learning, having a good time, perhaps creating something of value, but no one has it all figured out yet - Search, Social Media, Web Analytics, are all fairly young disciplines, in the scheme of things - we're all beginners, learning out way, learning what works.


Dave; Sweet… a perfect ending. Thanks a bunch Marshall and I am sure you and I will have many a discussion and debate; I look forward to learning more!!

Marshall Adds; (BTW) This is the movie that Los Angles County Museum of Art made of my footage from Aix that annotates Cezannes famous Sous Bois painting at the museum - I'm grinning.


Marshall Sponder

About Marshall Sponder - Marshall is an artist as well as analytics maven the writes over at WebMetricsGuru and the Analytics Guru - and also covers the New York Art Scene. I've been an analytics geek for more than a few years and Marshall is one guy I've always enjoyed reading. If you don't have his feed... or haven't hooked up with him on Twitter - do so now!

I'd like to thank Marshall a TON for agreeing to talk to me and share some knowledge with you Trail riders.


My next interview will be with the one and only, Lisa Barone... so be sure to stay tuned!


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