Marshall Simmonds SEO Pioneers

Marshall Simmonds – SEO Pioneer

Marshall Simmonds lives in Bend, Oregon, which, according to Marshall, is the birthplace of search engine optimization.

In the mid-90s, Marshall was working at CompUSA and a chance meeting with John Audette landed a job at Multi-Media Marketing Group, where he learned everything about SEO and then went on to be the head of SEO at At the time, About was the third largest site in the world.

After was acquired, Marshall went on to be the head of SEO at the NYT before founding Define Media.

Marshall has trained journalists and editorial teams on best practices at some of the biggest brands in media around the world.

In this episode, Marshall talks about his focus on the long game of building brands and not just looking for the quick-rank approach of his contemporaries.

Marshall talks extensively about his time at About and the changes and risks he took to ensure that dominated search. He also talks about how he had to learn to play a political game at the NYT and how change was difficult to implement.

In this interview Marshall talks about:

  • How a chance meeting got a job with John Audette
  • First experiences of the internet
  • Learning SEO from Danny Sullivan
  • Being paid by MMG to learn SEO
  • The iSearch newsletter and how that made him an expert
  • Starting work at and tactics being used at the time
  • The most significant technical changes made to that had the biggest impact
  • One of the most influential tactics employed in his career
  • Building a long-term brand
  • Becoming the head of search at NYT
  • How he met resistance to changes
  • The changes he managed to implement
  • Opening up the archive section online at the NYT
  • The riskiest move he made that paid off at
  • How working at a big brand like NYT is more about sales and politics than SEO
  • Training editorial teams at the NYT and around the world
  • The most significant evolutions in news SEO over the last 25 years
  • How other people were the biggest attribute to his success
  • How the mirror server at was a great relationship builder with the search engines something he has never shared before
  • What he misses from the early days

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SEO Pioneers – Marshall Simmonds Transcript

Shelley Walsh: Hello and welcome to SEO pioneers. Today I’m speaking to Marshall Simmons who started out working for John Audette at the Multi Multimedia Marketing Group, and this is where he grew the eye search newsletter list. And this was a central point for many of the early SEOs in the late nineties. After that, Marshall went on to be director of search at and head of search at NYT.

So I think it’s fair to say that Marshall is very much an absolute pioneer at the beginning of the industry. So I’m sure he’s got a lot of interesting stories to tell.

Marshall Simmonds: Good morning. It’s good to be here, Shelley. And I really like the series. a lot of good names from the past that I haven’t thought of in a long time.

And so I’m really enjoying it. It’s if anything, it’s nostalgic, and it’s good to remember some of these stories. And like I said before, when you and I were talking, it’s firing up some synapses that I haven’t used in a long time. And I was just talking to my wife this morning. It’s like names and software and tactics and techniques that we were using in the early 2000s are so different than they are now.

And so it’s just been nice to do that exercise, that mental exercise.

Shelley Walsh: Yeah, it’s great to have you here, Marshall.

Marshall Simmonds: I’ve been pretty interested by the topic because if anything, it’s just a, it’s good for history’s sake. It’s also good because if my kids are ever interested in what I’m doing, they can go back and watch this video at some point, which I don’t think they will, because they don’t really show an interest in this, but.

Shelley Walsh: So you did psychology at university, and if that’s right, and then how did you actually go from that into Moving into this industry, because clearly, nobody had SEO experience. So how did you actually come to get a job working for John Audette? What was that journey?

Marshall Simmonds: It’s funny. I wanted to be, I was working in the field of psychology.

I was working in a group home for emotionally disturbed boys. And that was some great work and really rewarding, but boy, was it hard work. and the internet was taking off. This is 94, 95, and. And I wanted to get closer to computers. And so I started working at a computer store called comp USA.

That’s where John Audette came in to get his laptop fixed. And I decided to work. Everybody wanted to work over the weekends because you could get more sales and more money because a lot of people were shopping on the weekends. I wanted to work during the week because that’s when the Intel and the Microsoft people would come in.

And I wanted to talk to them because they had information, right? They were on the tip of what this was, of this revolution that was happening. And so I got more and I would hang out by where the laptops would be sold or the, where they would, they bring them in for service, the service area. And they would just, you would see these people, they would come in.

They would drop off their laptop and then they would go browse. And that’s when I would go talk to them. And that’s how I met John Audette. And I would always ask him, what do you do? Intel was, this was in Portland, Oregon. And so the Intel was just down the way from us. So there was a lot of traffic coming through.

Microsoft was around the way. So they were coming through. We got a couple of Oracle people here and there, and I wanted to know, and I didn’t want to be a programmer, but when John Audette came in and said. he asked me, I’ve been working there for a year or two and he said, how much you making?

And I said, not enough. And he said, come over here. And he would, he took me to the web TV demo that we had sent up and showed me his website and said, I do internet marketing. Are you interested? And incidentally, I did take the job from him and we moved to Ben and two other people that were at Comp USA, we brought down to start working at MMG and they went on to be hardcore SEO pros as well. And so Bend really did become this hub, and the birthplace of SEO and I’ll arm wrestle anybody who, because we’ve had more people come out of Bend, Oregon that went on to, either be a pioneer, an innovator, had a successful exit.

For their companies that, Jeremy Sanchez and Bill Hunt at GSI, big time names and big companies. A lot of us, a lot of major names that came out of Bend, Oregon as a result of some of the work that we started at MMG.

Shelley Walsh: It’s really interesting how you do get these small hotspots of development when just a few people come together in nascent areas.

It’s quite interesting to see that.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, if you put a bunch of 20 somethings online, one or two things are going to happen. They’re gonna get very distracted or they’re gonna get very good at what they do, and we were both, but we were good at being distracted and when we were supposed to be. Other than that, it was so intriguing what we were learning and doing and search was changing.

It was so dynamic. That you’d have to be, you’d have to be pretty dull to not be somewhat enticed and intrigued by the change that was happening. There was well search engines at the time. Every time I tell my kids that it doesn’t compute, but there were 12 major search engines at the time that we were working with.

It was, there’s AltaVista. There was Excite, AOL, HotBot, InfoSeek, Lycos, WebCrawler. there was Ask Jeeves. There’s MSN there was, did I say Inktomi? there was, then, there was Google, there was MSN, there was all the web, there was the meta engines, there was the Dogpile, and we were jamming sites into all of those.

And that was a lot to work with. And each one was a little bit different. Not really, but, so many different verticals to promote through so many different platforms and different technology to promote through that it was, so engaging and like I said, it was enticing and that’s what I really appreciated about it.

And there was so much change happening. Since 1997, I joined a small marketing company, a digital marketing company out of Bend, Oregon called Multimedia Marketing Group, and we are a ragtag group of, there’s about six of us, seven of us that were doing, link development and online promotion and digital marketing and before search was even a thing.

And, our founder, John Audette, he had a really big megaphone. He had a discussion list called the iSales discussion list and everybody was on it. Thousands of people were on it. I want to say it was 30, people were on it. It was one of the, one of the premier marketing discussion groups to be on discussion lists and how that worked.

For those that may not know is you would submit your questions and he would vet them all read them all and then twice weekly. No, I’m sorry. He would do it daily put out a Q and A thread of how people would respond to certain questions and you would just read it on online digest every day delivered to your inbox.

And so he developed a book out of that out of the tactics that he learned, because he was getting so much information. And that was how MMG was born. and he hired a few kind of aggressive, active people who, mildly understood what was happening online. And we moved to Bend, Oregon and set up shop and that’s how it all started.

Shelley Walsh: How did you actually come to, what were your very first experiences of the internet?

Marshall Simmonds: So that was pretty much been thrown into the deep end. there weren’t a lot of rules. That was fairly, it was, the cliche is the wild West. And it certainly was, we were doing link development on forum boards mainly.

some promotion here. Not a lot of ad buys because it was still relatively in its infancy. Double click was just coming around. There were some others that were out there. we hadn’t yet. Overture hadn’t yet really started up what it was doing. so there was, it was a lot of just clicking, just grabbing, copying, pasting and clicking Hey, check out our site.

A lot of posts in the forums were noise causing noise. And That was my first digital marketing experience before that was just basically gaming and being, and just playing for the most part. like we all were, we were so entranced by what we were seeing on a monitor, that it was.

It was so every day was Christmas. Every day was fascinating to be online and go in a different direction. And Yahoo was such a great starting point. their, directory was so fantastic. and that’s that was one of the first steps is that we would do submissions to Yahoo and all the major directories just to get a footprint to get a foothold.

To get some promotion, some basic levels of promotion. This was before the, the ODP, was out there. The Open Directory Project, which was a bigger directory that came in afterwards that a lot of, search engines pulled in. but that was my basic entry foray into, the internet.

But it was, a lot of learn as you go. And that’s what John did is he just threw us in and just said, go promote and you had to do it on your own. So you either sank or swam.

Shelley Walsh: So it must have been quite a radical new thing going and working for John. you, I presume you would have had no idea what you were stepping into.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, that’s right. And he had a lot of good connections. And so October of 2007, I won’t forget it. October, 2007, he had such a big megaphone and how many, so many contacts he met Danny Sullivan and said, I want you to come, and, train our company. On this, whole concept of search, John takes credit for coining the phrase search engine optimization.

I, there’s a lot of argument about that, but he will give him credit because of, he may very well have because he was, he had insight and he had vision for sure. And this was in the early days and he brought Danny in. And over, over a day and a half, Danny just took us through how search works, start to finish, did a training in, live in person.

We all gathered around. There were six of us. We all gathered around the computer and he sat there and showed through ink to me, sorry, info seek, which had instant indexing, which mean you put a URL in and hit the index button and they can go back and look at the search results and see if it changed. It didn’t change.

You go back and rework the page. Index it again. Submit it again. Watch to see if it would change. You could, change and, influence the search results in real time. And this was through Infoseek. And he showed us how he did this. Oh, it didn’t work. I’m going to go rework the meta keywords tag.

Add in more keywords around this phrase. That didn’t work. I’m going to go work, rework the headline, the title, the description. These relatively benign features nowadays that had amazing influence. He took us through this training and we sat there and watched. In awe. And I realized I was hooked when he did this training.

I knew this is what, what I needed to do what I wanted to do. And after he was done, John said, who wants to head this up? And I just put my hand on my God. This is it. This is me. I want to do it. and so John’s okay, start. You’re now the search department for our search engine optimization program that we’re going to sell into our marketing, our marketing engagements.

And you’re going to be the head of it. And I was like, here we go. Here we go. and so I took it off. I took it and off we went. And we, we, I had to look at and understand, like I developed an audit process to review client sites. We charged by the page. You want us to optimize 10 pages? it’s a hundred bucks a page moved up.

I remember when we moved it up to 150 a page and that was a big deal. and so we would go through and we would optimize and make suggestions. Yeah. They would either give us access and we would FTP up their changes and then submit them, or they would do it. And then we would track it. We would use WebPositionGold every week and track it and produce these reports.

And it was quite the process. And it was trial by fire for sure, because each engine was a little bit different, but we would test mainly with Ink2Me. Sorry, I keep saying that. We would test mainly with InfoSeq, where you could do real time changes, test your results. Get it to a point where you felt pretty good that week, push out the results to the site, and then submit them to the rest of the 12 search engines out there.

Shelley Walsh: Just to clarify, you didn’t have any coding or computer science background before?

Marshall Simmonds: No, not a bit. I learned HTML on the fly. there wasn’t a lot that you had to learn. You just had to basically understand the corresponding fields that pertain to SEO title, meta keywords, tag, meta description, tag, you would look at headlines, you could keyword stuff.

You can put a lot of content at the bottom. I didn’t go that route. I didn’t like the idea of tricking. A user or a search engine. and we’ll get into that more as we get to about. com, but that was not our method. I didn’t like that because people were paying for that and I didn’t want, I wanted them to get a foothold and keep that foothold, keep that positioning.

So yeah, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know HTML in the sense where I couldn’t code a site, but I could code a page relatively well, to get it to rank.

Shelley Walsh: So you like really landed in a unique position of. Somebody paying you to actually learn SEO. Whereas most of the people who started in the industry started out learning hacking at home on their own, you were being paid to do this.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, made it up on the way. He said, go create a department, create a, the department of search or whatever you want to call it. but we’re going to sell it and I’m going to start on Monday. And so I, this was on a Friday and he started selling on Monday. That was John, real aggressive. and they’d been talking about, and we talk about it as if we always knew.

And that was the marketing side. and as if we were veterans in the space. And so he did a good job like that. That was his thing is that he was a good salesman. I’ll give it to him. He was definitely a good salesman. So we’d always done it. And here’s, Marshall Simmons. Here’s our, director and head of search who can, help you rank your content at the top of all 12 of the major search engines go.

Shelley Walsh: So how were you just learning through your experimentation or were you active in any forums to help you learn?

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah. So Danny, Sullivan, which of course we all bow down to, he was the godfather of search and he had the iSearch. Newsletter and that I forget if it came out monthly or weekly or whatever it did or just when he was ready.

Maybe it was bi monthly. Bi weekly, excuse me. We did that, but, it was interesting news. He’s a reporter. And so it was industry news in that sense. So John, who had eye sales. Said, we want to start an iSearch and do you want to head it up, Marshall? And I was like, of course, because to your question, like, where was I getting information?

It was trial and error, mostly enter iSearch. So John put out, Hey, we’re starting this discussion called iSearch. It’s everything that you want to know about directories and search engine optimization and the flood came. Everybody joined up because it was the newest shiniest object that we had around promotion techniques.

So that’s why it made, started to make sense that we should start talking about it and being an influencer before that was even a thing. So over the period of time, and I had it for two years, we grew that list about 8,500 people. And what it was people asking questions. People answering questions.

And so I was the moderator and what my job was to sort through all the good viable questions and answers and keep the threads going and keeping them managed as it went on because some threads would go on for weeks. Talking about Yahoo and optimization around our directory versus a search engine was very different.

And so I would break it up into three parts, just random questions about SEO directories and search engines, and you have to keep it manageable because people want to read quickly. And that email would come out on Tuesdays and Fridays. And so it was a lot of work, but there was so much information coming in and when a really good nugget would come in.

I would share it within the organization, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it out on into I search if something came through really good. And so when you ask, like, how did I get my information trial and error. Of course, because we had a bunch of websites that we were working on, but then I would sit in the control tower, so to speak, and all of these planes would pull up with information, drop it off.

I would look at it and I was party to quite a bit of very interesting techniques and strategies and tactics, et cetera. And the good ones I would put out there, but the great ones I would hold on to.

Shelley Walsh: So the iSearch list, how did you actually start promoting it? How did you get traction to get the first subscribers?
Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, mainly through John, but then I went out and did my own hustling. I went out to the directories and I went out to the search engines and started optimizing for search engine optimization forums. And that’s, we had a website that sat on the MMG site and that just kept promoting it and just hustled.

And then it word of mouth, and then it took off. so we had iSales, which had, thousands of, members, followers, and then our guerrilla marketing tactics that we did to promote it as well. Because if you think about it, it was, it was. good for MMG and it was good for iSales and it was good for me and it was good for SEO.

So it was a very, it was that, the relationship was very beneficial for everybody. because sometimes it would result in sales and, work and it’s like the certainly wasn’t everybody called me an expert immediately out of the gate and I felt a little bit of imposter syndrome because I’m like, I’ve been doing this for maybe six months, but it’s just people, it’s like the life of Brian you stand on a little bit of a higher box of taller box.

People think you’re an expert on your category and by virtue of the fact that I was moderating, people called me an expert. So I was very hesitant to take on that title for a while. But after a certain amount of time, I realized yeah, I do know quite a bit about this. So I embraced it after that. and that’s where, I felt a little bit more comfortable because we started to get good at it.

and I think where we really did shine was we got the Intel Pentium 2 processor. John landed that. That engagement from Intel. It was a big deal. The Pentium two processor with the bunny men and all that. If you remember back in the day, and, the commercials behind that, it was one of their biggest releases.

And we had that campaign. And so we went full throttle on the SEO side of things. Anytime you’re typing in new computer, Pentium processor, Pentium two processor, we were landing for it. And those are the days where you could own multiple positions. So I could have Intel in the top five positions.

And Google or any of the search engines weren’t really filtering out for that. they weren’t filtering out for multiple results from one site. so we own the, results and they saw that as a huge success. And that really did help as well. so that the Intel Pentium two campaign was a big one for us.

Shelley Walsh: What clients, were you working for as an Intel?

Marshall Simmonds: Intel was by far the biggest. and I knew you were probably going to ask this and I had to really rack my brain for who was it that we were working with? And so we worked with Intel. We worked with a couple of different factions of Intel because that word just spread and it was very successful.

And then we worked with a lot of what I would call a lot of sites that aren’t around anymore. and, but one of them, one of the, interestingly, one of the followers or members of iSearch was the, was a, as a developer that worked for a company called about. com and she reached out to me in ‘99.

So this is a year and a half after I’ve been at MNG. And she said, Hey, we are looking. To build this type of service, this SEO service in house. And that was intriguing to me because I hadn’t heard of anybody doing that, like creating a legitimate position within an organization that all they did.

Was SEO. And I thought, that might be boring because I would get, it was nice that we had so many clients because I could just turn my attention to different topics. And I couldn’t work on this garlic press site too much, right? You can only do so much work for the garlic store. I think is what it was.

Garlic store. com. And then she upped it up the ante a bit. And she said, we’ve got 850 guides. Covering over, 100,000 topics, and that got my interest because what bigger campaign is there than that? So that was when my work at MMG was done. And to transition into that, Danny, had the first search engine strategies conference in the fall of 99.

And that’s actually where I announced that I was moving over to I told them I was leaving. Danny’s we’re going to have a, we’re going to have a conference. So I want you to come speak. can you, pull your membership and your readers? And I said, sure. And so our, polling question was.

On the meta keywords tag, which hasn’t been used since, we’ll say 2004, 2005. But basically it was like a poll of do you use phrases? Do you use single words? Do you use commas? Do you use no commas? Do you let Google parse out the keyword, the meta keyword tag or not? All these various questions of really, what was really important tactic back in the day that is.

Kind of laughable now, but it’s cute at this point. And so I did my full hour presentation on the best uses of the meta keyword tag. And it. It’s nascent that Danny pushed out. I still have it. It’s in my closet. I should have brought it out for, this, call, just to show it because, and so that entire conference was recorded and you can buy it on tape.

And so I still have the 20 tape series. Of it all, if I can find a tape player, I can listen to myself back from 1999 presenting on the best practices of the meta keyboard tag.

Shelley Walsh: So when we were, still at MGM and obviously learning, what kind of other, what kind of tactics were you using back then?
Like you say, it was very, it was very basic.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah. And it’s very basic. And, but that’s what everybody was doing. And that’s what I took to about. com, which was the best practices were very much. And it’s so funny about SEO is so much has changed and yet so much is still say the same.

You still focus on the meta description for marketing. You focus on the title tag, not so much for ranking, but more for promotion of a concept of a topic in the title. So you’re interacting with the search engine as well as a user. so we still work on the title tags. We still work on descriptions. We work on headlines, work on content, ideation, the structure of a page, it’s changed a lot, obviously since then, but best practices, the core, the bones of SEO are still there and it’s still what we promote.

And so that’s what I took some of those findings, those fundamental best practices. And I took those to about. com and they’re in New York. I’m in Bend, Oregon, best of both worlds. the best thing about New York is being in New York. And the second best thing is getting to leave New York and going back to Bend, Oregon, which is, that is a, one of the best places in the world to live.

So I was flying out to New York as many times as I want to. and, right in the heart of Manhattan, working with. There was about 400 people there before the guide. So 400 people at about. com proper. I was this mysterious kid coming from Bend, Oregon, New Yorkers didn’t know what to make of me. They didn’t know what to do with SEO, but all of a sudden I plug in and I start working with 800 guides and they are hungry for information because they get paid based on the page view.

And so more page views means more money, obviously, but I was there to help them and the network achieve new level status, new level of traffic status. And we did it in a very quick period of time because the search engines were all very hungry for data that was a bit more optimized.

Search engines still to this day need SEO as much as we need them. They need us to go navigate. Corporate structure, working with development teams to promote concepts internally. They need search engines need us as much as People may think that they don’t. They need us to advocate internally for new, new optimization, tactics, maybe tactics or any new edict that Google may push out or promote that helps a page be indexed more efficiently.

Effectively. They need us to advocate for it. And so I’ve always seen that as we’re the best advocates that search engines have. And, we weren’t always treated that way. and, some of the, sometimes we were treated a little bit as used car salesmen, but I never saw that because of the content that we were working on.

And later the NYT, they needed us and they needed us because every site was built different and search engine crawlers weren’t good at navigating and extracting data then. So we needed to build it in a way that was more search friendly. And so that’s what I brought to about. com is and I immediately started advocating for a redesign.

Let’s make these pages easier. let’s make these pages, build them in a more simple way. So the search engines can access this information quicker, faster, easier, index it easier. And meanwhile, working with the editorial group and the about. com writers to target better keywords, to target better SEO, target better topics, and to influence.

all the promotion tactics across 12 different search engines. And we pushed hard on that. And I had buy in from the top, from the CEO on down, and that made it very successful very quickly. about. com as you pointed out, and just the pre questions about was one of the top properties for a long time, top properties on the internet for a long time, because of everybody moving in lockstep with the SEO mandate that, that I, pushed through.

Shelley Walsh: Wasn’t one of the, it seems like the third biggest site on the internet at the time. Yeah. And you were running the SEO for that.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah. and I more or less stepped into the marketing role. it, that marketing was a little bit more, it was a little bit more staunch than, By tradition, but by what when we think of a director of marketing now, it was very different than the nineties.
and I would say it was, I wouldn’t say it was as dynamic as it is today. And so I stepped in there and said, you can deal with everything offline. Because that was still a real big promotion tactic. Magazines, television, et cetera. That kind of advertising was what we saw marketing as. I took on a pretty heavy digital role at to promote content through a lot of different channels. There was a lot of arbitrage happening. They were buying a lot of traffic too. That was happening in the day. you could do that. And, but for the most part, The guides were my biggest, most successful tool because they were hungry for that information and they were great in experimenting and testing.

So that was my corporate life. And meanwhile, the connections that we had, that I had through iSearch really did help like listening. And I saw your interview with Greg Boser and it was so great to hear him and talking about John Hurd and Dave Naylor and there were so many men and women in SEO that were so good at what they did.

And we would talk at these conferences just openly about what would work and what was so great about hearing. what so many of them were doing on the black hat side, paying playing the cat and mouse game of Google is I could hear where the line was drawn and know what tactics because about my whole approach was with about was what was later coined as being white hat, playing by the rules, so to speak, and not running afoul.

Obstructing any kind of guidelines that the search engines had. attempting to spam them or influence their database and in what would be considered negative nefarious ways. I took what I learned from MMG and iSearch, and I moved that into to keep our nose clean, to use the parlance.

And talking with Greg and all these, real aggressive people, real aggressive marketers. I knew where the line was and that was helpful.
Shelley Walsh: What do you think, what was, when you went to About, what were the most significant technical changes that you made to the site that made the biggest impact?

Marshall Simmonds: Taxonomy. That was a real confusing taxonomy. And what we did is we changed the structure of the site to make it much more simple and easy to crawl. and so we minimize and flattened the taxonomy. And that was a big deal. We went up to Vermont for a ski trip. I went up with the developers. We went up to, to, we skied during the day cause I was a big skier coming out from Oregon.
We’d ski all day and work all night. And it was fantastic for a weekend. We designed the new about. com and we brought whiteboards and everything and did it all up and came out of there Sunday afternoon with a new approach that, that they implemented over the period of the next three months. And we just crushed it.

We just absolutely crushed it. About. com would often be the top 10 results and it pissed people off and it shouldn’t. So if you do things for dogs, if you did a search for Oh, what’s the best new dog leash and about has all 10 of the results from different categories, sometimes from just the dog site, sometimes from the pet site, sometimes from, the accessory site or whatever that was.
And we own the top 10 results. It didn’t take long for the search engines to say, we, we’ve got to start filtering for this because we were doing everything right. We were playing by the rules, but we had such a breadth of content that was relevant and we were optimizing so well and working hand in hand with the search engines, that it, it, did very well.
It did very well. we were top five site for, we were top five site for years.

Shelley Walsh: You said, earlier how you were working with all the content producers and, working on the strategy and keywords and optimizing the pages. And what year was this? Was this 1, sorry, 2000. Yeah, early 2000. that was actually quite, a very new, it wasn’t anything that anybody else was doing at that time.

I know it’s standard now. But 23 years ago, that wasn’t what other people were doing, was it?

Marshall Simmonds: It was not, no. I had a lot of resources at my disposal. I had 850 guides, 800 guides that were producing. 1500 pieces of content a week for us to test across various topics. We knew everything and we were actively watching logs.

I, cause I had a real, I was in the, I was hired by a developer and I sat in. The dev team and I wasn’t a developer. And so they looked down their nose at me, but then they realized like, I was cool. I don’t know why they adopted me into their tribe. It was probably the ski weekend. but once we got to that point where I was accepted as part of their crew, they would do whatever I needed them to do.

So I asked them to do something that was pretty, cutting edge at the point of time, which was like, I wanted them to track log files for me and. So I wanted to know what the search engines were doing once they were on our site, and that was pretty intensive. And so they gave me a developer and his job was basically to, to track user agent activity throughout the site, and, so we could see in the early days what the search engines were doing, and use that information as a feedback loop into the team, into the, and they, totally geeked out on it because they wanted to know what search engines were doing.

And we use that information in the early days, and, one of the questions you sent me and I had to really think about, which was. What was one of the most influential tactics that I used back then? And I thought about it and then my answer is what we did, the relationships that we built with these 12 search engines was, something that I thought was, probably one of the more influential things that I did in my career.

And I also did it at the NYT and we’ll talk about that in a second, but we basically built two versions of about. com. We built the standard front facing user interface. That anybody could hit at or any of the sub domains. And then we also mirrored that and we mirrored that. We put it up on a server, a specific private server.

And then I went to all the search engines and said, do you want to test? Do you want, do you need a testing platform, a secure testing platform to basically run any kind of change, any algorithmic, adjustments or enhancements that, or updates that you’re making. Go test it on a million pieces of content here and see what happens.

And they all took it, of course. They all used that because it was safe, and the other thing is that it was human edited. And nothing gets better than that. There’s no better, and that’s where the search engine, that’s why the search engine loved Open Directory and Yahoo! so much is because it was a human Edited human reviewed version of the Internet.

So in addition to what the content that the guides were writing about, their job was also to go through and mine all these other sources out there. And we came up with this concept about being a resource or a hub. Be a resource. a landing page for information, but also be a hub of information, find the best sources out there other than yours and link to them and show where these resources are.
Is there a better site for dogs? Is there a better site for, for roller coasters and theme parks, which was a huge site for pregnancy, et cetera, et cetera. And so now we’ve got two things happen. We have an expert that’s writing content, but we also have an expert that’s out there reviewing other sources and the search engines.

Absolutely love that because that was so important to what their effort was. so they couldn’t, they just had, cause they had no quality control. They were out there crawling, but they couldn’t determine if this was a good site or not. Enter about. com. You put a layer of humans, 850 guides actively hitting all these hundreds of thousands of topics and, categorizing them for the search engines.
And now we put this on a private server and I went to all 12 of the search engines. And saying, go nuts, hit it as hard as you want, hit it as often as you want. And they all tested on it.

Shelley Walsh: Effectively, it sounds very similar, it’s Wikipedia. Just, going back to something you said earlier, you, you were taking, right from early, in your career, you were taking a white hat approach.

You didn’t want to take risks. You were obviously aware that there was, there was a lot of spammers in the industry who were, the process was to make money, rank as quickly as they could and aggressively to make money. Why did you take the approach of white hat? Was it just purely because you were working for clients?

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, I had a notable brand, one of the most popular brands in the world on the internet and we were taking risks, we were taking risks, but I could talk to Sugar Ray. I could talk to Dave. I could talk to John Hurt. I could talk to Bozer. And again, I knew where that line was. And honestly, I didn’t like that cat and mouse game.

It was too stressful because they would turn and burn these sites. And that wasn’t, they got off on that, that for me, I wanted to build a brand. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to play a bit of a long game, with this brand with because I knew it was, it was viable and it was very influential.

And that’s, that was more appealing to me. and it was job security, as well as that is a brand that I wanted to be associated with. And so we took risks in that. I told them like, let’s rearchitect the entire site. That’s that was risky. Because that wasn’t easy to do back then. It’s still not easy to do.

But it was, really hard to do that back in 2000, 2001 to re-architect a site. Highly risky. And so the risks that we would take would be on the infrastructure or, not so much like trying to push what was happening with Google, or I keep saying Google what was happening with ink to me. Or HotBot.

Or Infoseek or Excite or AOL or AltaVista. We didn’t need to. We had the content. So we didn’t need to, I’ll put finger quotes around this, but we didn’t need to cheat. We didn’t need to push those limits. But I learned, I want to be clear, I learned so much from those legends that I was a part of.

I just had a different approach to it. But that was one of the reasons why the NYT, New York Times came sniffing around in late 2003 is that We had content. We had exceptional promotional tactics. We own search and the NYT. Wanted to get in the game. They had a website. Publishing was floundering.

They hadn’t really woken up to search and the New York Times came around. And was interested in acquiring and in particular was interested in acquiring their SEO team, which was me and my boss. And that was 2004 and that’s where the times came calling. And that was wonderful. That was, when the golden period started for me personally.

Shelley Walsh: Was it 2005, you, became head of search at NYT?

Marshall Simmonds: It’s 2004. Yeah. They offered me the position. They said, we want you and your boss to come over. And basically what Martin Nissenholz, who was a genius and a visionary online and was heading up, I forget what his title was. He was just like, scientist of everything.

He teaches now and he teaches at Harvard and is fantastic. He’s just such a smart person. He had a vision and he basically said to me in his office when we had he said, I want you to do for the New York Times what you did for and I had the bat phone to the president of the New York Times.

I had the bat phone to Arthur Sulzberger, who is the owner of the New York Times. and they said, we want you to do this and go nuts. And it was fantastic for about five hours. And then I hit the wall, which was the wall of old school publishing. And cause I came in and the New York times was that company was not happy about the acquisition.

It’s 650 million acquisition of New York Times of Who is this? Why are we doing this? Remember, publishing was not. Old school publishing was, not, accepting of the internet. I was immediately told it was a fad that was going to play out by the old guard. I was told that this wasn’t journalism, what I was talking to them about.

But it was such a good training platform for me to learn about how journalism works, how real journalism works, how real content creation works. I had to let them know that their work was a commodity, and you can’t say that to the New York Times, because they felt like they were at the top of the pyramid.

It’s the old, it’s the gray lady, we are the paper of record. All the news is fit to print. 154 years of information. We reported on the Civil War. I saw newspapers. Literally newspapers that were about civil war battles. They were the paper of record. And here comes somebody coming in, telling them that this is how that it’s going to be now, that this new internet thing, is it going to be the main medium and platform that they were going to promote on?

Shelley Walsh: So it was tough. What did you do? So you got in there, you’re sat in your seat first day. What were the first changes you implemented?

Marshall Simmonds: I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do anything it was very hard, even though I had top down. I had top down approval to do anything I needed to do. And one time I remember six months in, I went to Martin’s office and I said, I can’t get anything done.
I can’t get anything done. Nobody will do. Nobody will listen to me. Nobody will follow what I’m talking about there. I was told. This isn’t journalism. And he looks at me and he says, Marshall, be an executive. So get it done, be an executive and figure out how to do it. And it was, great guidance, in hindsight, because it’s just like being an adult, figure it out, quit whining about it and figure it out.

And so part of me joining the New York times, there’s a couple of things happening, part of me joining the New York times was. they, when I came on, they just, I always say this about them. they always, they just kept saying yes to me because here’s what I wanted to do in 2004, I was thinking about jumping ship from and start my own thing. I wanted to start a boutique consulting agency. And because I knew that publishing was waking up and I had something, I had information and I had a lot of data points to make a lot of organizations. Very, popular and productive and so and successful. So I was looking to jump ship, but and I so I told Martin this and he said, why don’t you do it on the side?

And as long as you don’t work with News Corp was that was it. You can work with anybody. You just can’t work with News Corp. Which was that’s fine. That was a competitor of theirs. So I came into the NYT And I also started, I started a consulting branch called Define Media Group with Matthew Brown.

I brought on an old college friend of mine, closefriend that I’ve had for years. and he and I spun up Define Media Group on the side while we were working internally to start moving some things, moving things forward with the N. Y. T. So those two things were happening. The Times just kept saying yes.

So I had a three person team that was doing Define Media Group that we were out. Just we were getting started starting the engine and getting some small clients going. But then with the NYT we had to find and this was with all due respect. In the NYT there was an old guard and I had to find the young guard.

And we did that through the movie section in the real estate section. And it’s because there was two heads of those departments that were young and they got the Internet and they understood what we were doing. And they said yes to everything I was doing. It just took me a while to find him. Took me six months to find them, and they did everything that I told them to do.

And movies, if you think about it, really competitive topic, and real estate. Some of the most competitive topics out there. And they started implementing some of the changes that I made them, I asked them to do.

Shelley Walsh: what kind of changes were you asking them to do?

Marshall Simmonds: Basic stuff. Like they were not even doing the basic best practices.

It was such easy pickings. And that was what was so frustrating is that you see this diamond and yet they kept, just getting in their own way. And just despite themselves, they wouldn’t do just some of the basic things that I asked them to do from changing a title tag to changing a description.

Back in the day when description was a ranking factor to targeting like quit calling it Asia’s deadly way. It was a tsunami. The Times has a journalistic way of thinking that differentiates them. It’s their voice, and that was fine. But if you think about it, asking them to do that is to ask for a fundamental change that they were not willing to do because they had 154 years of established journalistic best practices.

And editorial integrity that why would they change that? So I had to find something that wasn’t as risky and that was movies. And that was, real estate and they started doing really well. And so when you go to those manager meetings and they put up there on, on the screen, traffic numbers, and we see these traffic numbers for all these different departments and desks and beats, and then you see real estate over here and movies up here.

Like significant, significantly different traffic patterns. And it just took time before people were like, how are you doing that? How are you doing that? What’s happening? What are you doing? Why are you so popular? How are you getting so much traffic? And they would say, go talk to Marshall.

Shelley Walsh: And that was just simply from changing title tags and descriptions

Marshall Simmonds: and architecture and coming up with the concept of linked journalism, which is to, again, Jan Pedersen from.
I saw an old, excuse me, Jan Pedersen, who is the chief scientist, chief search scientist at AltaVista, and then he went over to Yahoo, and he’s still out there doing his thing. I saw a presentation of his, which was deep into information retrieval and deep, science of search technology that we don’t even talk about nowadays.

He had a concept called the bow tie effect links in links out. And that was something that really resonated with me. And I kept, and I took it to about. com and then I took it to the times as well as to say let’s be a resource. Let’s be a hub of information. Let’s give our users good guidance and information, but let’s give them also places to go and that concept of link journalism and linking out was very good for search and very good for users.

And that became the bedrock of our strategy. Good for search, good for users. I still talk about it to this day that’s fundamental.
And guess what was counter to everybody’s methodology or thought process.

AOL is walled garden. They wouldn’t let anybody out. But the concept was there because what does the internet want? What do crawlers want? They want to crawl. They want resources. They want to spider the Internet. So let’s give them what they want, and let’s give them links in and links out. And we have humans as a layer that’s vetting, that’s writing content, but is vetting all these external resources.

That was a hard lesson for The Times to take on. They didn’t like it in the beginning, but certain editors did. And those are the people I had to seek out or had eventually found me through my foothold through movies and real estate.

Shelley Walsh: So did you say that you implemented changes to the architecture as well?

Marshall Simmonds: We did, and the biggest one was when I came across, I went, I, one of the things I had a really good in with the legal department, and I had a really good in with the sales team, and I asked the sales team, what, where do we make money. And one of the things that they said was, we make subscriptions to schools for our archives.

I’m like, tell me more about the archives because the second you say archives, you’ve got my attention because that’s content. And they showed me, they had a database that they sold to schools, to universities and to LexisNexis, this vast database of hundreds of, 150 years of news and information written by a human.

And I looked at this and I thought about this and I thought, this is an amazing archive that we could make available to users as a resource to our users for free. And they freaked out when I started thinking about this idea and the sales team was like, we would never make this available for free.

Why would we do that for free? And I was like, because there’s this thing called ads and ad revenue and page views. And so my boss and I took it on to go model it out because Martin then said to me, show us model it out and tell us how it would work. And so we did, we said, in 10 years, this will make more money in five.

And we just said 10, but it was really within three, but, we said, five to 10 years, you are going to make more money off this. And you ever word would three X five X more than you ever would by just selling these subscriptions. So we modeled it out and Martin said, go and we did it. So we opened up the archive, and we architected it in a way that made it a lot more friendly.

And it’s still out there today. If you go to the sitemap of the New York times, scroll down to the very bottom, go into the footer and the sitemap. It sends you to basically the archive that we opened up. Danny also wrote about it. If you go search on my name, New York times. Danny Sullivan wrote. We opened up the archives and he being a journalist, I wouldn’t told him like, look what we just did.
And he went nuts. He loved it because now the New York Times is available for free for anybody that wants it. Anything that happened before after a certain period of time, we rolled it into the archive and anybody could get it. and that was a big deal because now it was available to the world. and then of course I told all the search engines about it, but Katie, you guys want this and it’s the paper of record.

It’s a historical paper. it’s a historical view of our nation in the world back to 1854. So that was, and it’s available now available for free, go crawl it. And we architected it in a way that you can get it quickly and easily. That was a big win.

Shelley Walsh: Just going back to, going back quite a long way with, to iSearch days and you were, getting a lot of information through and a lot of questions and things that were working out of those things that were really, pushing the edge of risk. Were there any of those that you implemented it about or NYT that really pushed it to the edge and you thought, Oh, this might go horribly wrong.

Marshall Simmonds: If there was anything we had to, we had to check some of the guys, and we had to, enforce our best practices against some of the guys, because they realized like, if I spam with a notable brand, I can get a lot more page views because they were, that was their incentive was more page keyword stuff often, which is just a repetition of words, just lists of words at stuck at the bottom of the page.

Sometimes you could make it invisible. Sometimes you could set it off to the right where it wasn’t on the viewable page. You could do a lot of tactics that we actually had to police the network to keep everybody in check. We had to remove some guides because they were too aggressive. So it was more me taking the information that I learned from all of my spammer friends.

And making sure that we were within compliance of our guidelines. So it made me a little bit of a good cop, which is not what I really wanted to be, but I get why they were doing it because they were making money off of a notable brand, but we, I had to protect the brand. And I still say that to this point, it’s like, to this day is we protect the brands first and foremost, that’s the incentive. And that is the goal. And that’s the mission is to protect the brand and then get out of the way of the brand and let it do what it wants and what it should do based on its prominence and its history and it’s you know, it’s editorial guidelines. And so that is how I use the information from all of the network that I built up.

Shelley Walsh: So apart from the architectural change you made at, what was the riskiest move that you pulled that paid off?
Marshall Simmonds: The riskiest one was basically setting up that database because it took time and it took money. And the developers are like, why are we working on a phantom version of the site?

Why are we mirroring this and hosting it and paying for it when we’re not getting any return? but our management saw that it was our test bed for the search engines. It was our, it was our bridge to help them help us. And so I feel like that was a pretty risky move. And it was something that nobody else was doing.

And it allowed us to forge. Some very strong relationships. I was emailing with Sergey telling him like, Hey, we got a new release. And this was in 2002 when they were trying to get traction. and I would tell them when there was new releases of our, of, our about database and to go test on it.

And those are good relationships to have. And those kept going to the New York Times. So when we released the archives at the New York Times, I leveraged my Rolodex back in the day to all of these contacts that I had at the search engines, which were on the crawl team when you had access to engineers.

Telling Matt cuts here, this is, are you interested? And of course he was interested in the archive, like test go nuts. Pound on it as much as you want. And that was our job was to make sure that it was secure or strong enough. The information, the infrastructure was there that search crawlers could hit it as hard as they wanted to and would never, it would never default.

And it would never crash and that’s. What we did, so I don’t know if that’s, it’s risky in the sense of a big business and a big brand standpoint, is it risky on the SEO standpoint? No, it was innovative.

Shelley Walsh: It’s interesting because you are clearly working on a whole different level to most of us ever achieve, you’re, really up there working at which is equivalent to Wikipedia and the NYT is, it’s a very high level of brand to work on an SEO. So how do you think that actually translated down? Onto the ground level though, what average SEOs were doing.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, they’re all learning from us. They were taking. They would see what about. com was doing and we would see our tactics employ the basics from writing good title tags to writing good descriptions to how many times we had a word appear on a page we were being copied. Followed emulated often ivillage quickly followed behind us.

We saw Oh, we saw a lot of copycats coming as a result of what we did, and we saw a lot of old older. Sorry. We saw a lot of news and magazine publications releasing archives. we got hired to find media group. Obviously, when bigger publishers started to wake up to what was happening in the prominence of the NYT they wanted to know who did that, and Martin kept us like, we don’t get to talk about it, but you can talk about it through Define and so we did, and we, that’s where we got our initial tranche of work is that publishers wanted us to do what we were doing for the New York Times. And so I was speaking a lot under the umbrella of the NYT I was, I was the chief search strategist for the New York Times, and it was a very search centric audience, obviously, but.

Markers, heads of marketing started to come to our to these search engine strategies, and to the other various conferences that were out there. And we made a lot of connections as a result because people knew what the times were doing. And so they started asking, come do this for us. And I said, let me introduce you to Define Media Group and our group that we had over there and our consulting branch, because we didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity.

That would have been silly. because we had something to offer and into publishing, and that’s what has grown into what it is today.

Shelley Walsh: But when you’re working on a site that has got such brand dominance, how do those tactics and strategies translate down to a site that can never hope to have that level of authority. Are they ever going to work?

Marshall Simmonds: It’s a good question. It’s a good point. Naylor used to say, yeah, anybody can make the New York Times work and He’s right. He’s right. I like to work with big, notable brands with good reputations. But when you get into a big organization, it’s a mess. You become a politician very quickly.

You become a salesman very quickly. And it’s about navigating interdepartmental communication and winning and influencing and convincing and pitching. Department heads and stakeholders on why they should get on board with your strategic vision. And I got off on that. And that’s what motivated me.

Because all you have to do is just nudge that ship just a degree or two, over a slow period of time, get out of the way of the brand, let it do what it needs to do and educate people and get them to start thinking the right way. Start thinking about this new medium, which was, internet and search engine optimization and promotion and digital marketing.

And so coordinating that effort is a symphony and I was trying to conduct it. And Because you’re right, these tactics work and they did work through the S 2000 to 2000 before, we’ll say Panda in 2012, which was a real break point, where brands really did accelerate out of there, these tactics worked, but did they work for big brands better?

Yeah. Yeah. Because they should have, because these were authorities. And these authorities needed, they weren’t being heard for topics. They absolutely should have been a part of big major news events. And you weren’t seeing all the, some of the more seminal brands. The engines woke up to that. That was on them.

If the New York Times wasn’t visible in the top 10 results for a major breaking news story, that was more a problem with the search engines algorithm than it was with the brand itself. That’s why search engines need us, need search engine optimization experts, need digital marketing experts, because we’ve got to go into these brands.

And we’ve got a course correct and fix the technical underpinnings and the foundational elements of their sites. We still do that today. And without us, none of these new features, these technology, the progress that they’re making through structured data markup or whatever, it doesn’t get implemented without us advocating for it internally.

Shelley Walsh: Just going backwards and actually looking at it in the reverse way, because you started out working at MMG and you were working on much smaller brands and a different range of clients. So you went the opposite way. You went from working from small clients to working for about. com. What was that transition like?

Because could you actually implement the strategies that you’d been, that had been working at MMG? Could they work about, or was it a whole new way of working?

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, it was, in the, I always make it, it’s like, it’s akin to like digging the trenches and trench warfare where the actual optimization happens and there were so many sites out there looking for placement.

And so the tactics that I took immediately translated into all the topics that had, they were covering hundreds of thousands of topics. Every possible category you could think of. And so these tactics worked at the most Fundamental levels of search engine optimization. So it, and it was just the best practice.

It was getting implemented, getting best practice implemented from writing titles, meta keywords, descriptions, headlines, content links, and that was it. I needed them to do that. And it took a lot of training, a lot of me doing these sessions. For hours, I said,

I’m a very patient person because I’ve been talking about title tags for 25 years and it’s the same thing. So it makes me, a good parent. I’ll say that.

Shelley Walsh: Were you actually optimizing on a per topic basis or is it a blanket optimization across the site?

Marshall Simmonds: Per topics, but I had the guides doing it for me. I had the editorial heads doing it for me. I had the journalists doing it for me. I would just again, I would educate as much as possible and get them in the room.

I trained the entire journalistic and editorial teams of the New York Times. In addition to that, it should be noted that the New York Times don’t own the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune in Paris. So I was in Boston training the Boston Globe and their boston. com internet group. I was in Paris, Matthew Brown and I went to Paris and we’re literally training all the journalists and all the editors on search engine optimization best practices.

And then of course I took the New York Times through this training process. This was in 2005, six, seven, and then as defined media groups started to ramp up and we started working with other publishers, we were educating all the major news sources. I look back on our client list. And our portfolio and a bit.

It’s impressive. We’ve touched a lot of the journalists and editorial teams around the world. and just teaching them about best practices and how Internet search works. And we spun off. We spun Define media group off in 2011. And that’s when I left officially the New York Times. So I was there for seven years.

We spun off in 2011, kept the New York Times as a client for many years, and really just started to lean into what Define media group was doing. And that’s what we do today. And so we still work with major publishing and data driven sites and brands and working with heads of editorial heads of product, heads of tech to issue out the fundamental best practices.

Shelley Walsh: What do you think of, in news SEO? What do you think have been the most significant events of how it’s evolved over the past 20 years?

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, the top stories module was very influential because now it’s a new number one, and it will push any of the main sites and main links down those carousels have been pretty substantial, discovery is a pretty good source of traffic.

Google has done an exceptional job of keeping that very, They’ve kept it, they’ve kept that information. And the tactics around that pretty quiet. They’ve done a very good job of obscuring like they’re very good at. And then I would say, on top of that is, I think that the next fundamental shift is around AI, which is, the new modern day calculator.

It’s the new tool that teams will use. Now, every brand that we work with, they have said that. We’re not going to use AI to create content, but meanwhile, it has been used. it’s being used for box scores for the small, sports box scores that come into these local newspapers. It’s been being used to write that up for years.

I know major news organizations that are using it for, anytime, there are. Quarterly updates, anytime that apple issues their numbers on a quarterly basis, they that’s being automated. There’s uses of AI for efficiencies. And to, put the journalistic expertise into the stories that matter, not just the rote implementation and regurgitation of information that we need, but is okay being generated through AI.

it’s going to be, it’s phenomenal. We’re at the very end. I think the shine has come off a little bit, but it’s just like social, it’s a, it’s a shiny object right now, and like in 2009, everybody thought we needed to be on it and taking, making better use of it, which is fine, and we adopt and we implement and we adapt, but, and it’s good at writing some titles here and there, but for now, I’m waiting to see how, that really does come into play.

Shelley Walsh: What would you say, looking back, it’s been an illustrious. 25 career, 25 year career, for sure. What do you think has been the biggest attribution to your success?

Marshall Simmonds: Other people, John Audette having a vision, giving me a platform, Danny Sullivan, all the, people that I’ve met along the way, all the people at MMG that went on, the names, Derek Wheeler and Andre Jensen, Melissa Jensen, Detlef Johnson, Jeremy Sanchez, Bill Hunt. All those people at MMG that went on, I learned a lot from them.

Bill Hunt taught me how to be an adult in a professional world when I was 27. taught me how to be a professional. Martin Nissenholz who said yes. Ron McCoy at, who brought me in and made me one of the first, if not the first in house SEO expert at about if across the internet, people that just gave me the trust to do what I needed to do.

Martin, who said, yeah, sure. Go start a boutique agency on the side, but do what you did for about, for the NYT, for Boston, for the International Herald Tribune. So people that have just given me a platform and the encouragement, to, to be a pioneer and to take what I have learned and, implement it and give me the encouragement and to be successful.

So I give it all to the people around me. And even now today, at Define. It was Matthew Brown. It was Jay Leary. it was, and now it’s Adam Shirk and always Adam Shirk. And I worked with Adam Shirk at MMG and I’ve been working with him again at Define since 2007. We’re longtime friends and he’s one of the best in the industry.

And Shahzad Abbas who works at Define now. They make me look good. And so because of them and their expertise on the technical and the product and editorial sides. We are, we’re the best at what we do because, we’re diligent and we are, we’re good communicators at the end of the day, and we’ve got a lot of data points over our vast 25 years that kind of play into our success.

Shelley Walsh: If you hadn’t met John Audette at CompUSA, you might still be, involved in psychology in, with, younger adults.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, that’s entirely true. That’s entirely true. There’s a chance meeting on a random Tuesday afternoon at the around sitting around the Web TV. I feel like it was a little more orchestrated than that.

I had a vision to find somebody. I was fishing, right? I was fishing. I got up and I was fishing for a year and a half, on those weekdays when the execs would come in and it paid off.

Shelley Walsh: You certainly ran with it, Marshall, that’s for sure. so just a couple of questions for you. We’ve obviously been talking for a while now.

Can I ask you, so what, 20, 25 years, higher distance now, looking back, is there anything that you can share that you did, that you’ve never shared before? Like any tactics you tried at about. com that you wouldn’t share?

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, that was, and that was where I was going with that, that, phantom server set up.

That, that server was pretty important for relationship management. For us to test at about dot com to test architecture before we rolled it out to the bigger site. That was it. That was the I’m glad you asked that question too, because I’ve never mentioned that before. That was our little secret behind the scenes way of giving the search engines what they needed to practice to test.
To implement. and I know and we know because we were watching, they were all using it. All of them were and they were tested. They pounded the heck out of those servers and we set it up at a loss to do just that. So we could learn as well. And we took their we watched their crawl patterns. We watched what they did.

And, we could take those nuggets and implement that in our new architecture. That we came up with, and that was the secret sauce that we did, other than like our guidance and education, with the about. com guides.

Shelley Walsh: Was that a two way relationship? Were they feeding you? As you say, you were watching the crawl patterns, but were they giving you advice?

Marshall Simmonds: Never really, it was a one way street, but you had to be smart enough to watch and to learn from that. And we were, and we could test, we had, a million pieces of content at about that allowed us to test and test and see what worked and what didn’t and when, they started turning down or turning the dial up as far as like how many times they were going to let about appear, we had to just alter our tactics a little bit and get better at what we were doing.

But no, I have my relationship with Matt cuts like everybody did, but he talked in riddles and I always said that I could write a book on how to interpret and to translate Matt cuts because I got good at it and I know we all talk about him because he was so wonderful to have in the industry and it was such a great game that it was never adversarial.

It was very much, he’ll help, but he’s going to help in ways in very cloaked euphemisms and colloquialisms and references and vague innuendo. And you had to know. And make assumptions and go test. And so having cuts was awesome. and you got to the point where you could, I got really good at asking yes or no questions to him.

That’s all I needed. I just needed, a direction. We knew he wasn’t going to tell us how things worked, so we just needed a foothold and I just needed a yes or no answer and got good at it. Got good at asking, Google questions. I’m still good at asking Google questions.
Shelley Walsh: Marshall, what, yeah, what do you miss about those early days?

Marshall Simmonds: How dynamic it was, things were changing, how many options we had. We’ve got two now, we had 12 back in the day before the meta, engines even. It was, yeah, it was the Wild West and it was so fun and we were just on fire. 20 somethings online and early 30 somethings, it was, it, catered to my attention span very well and having that many search engines to, work with.
That’s what I miss. and now we’ve just all settled in. We’re seasoned veterans and pros at this point. And, yeah, we’re in the marathon at this point and we’ve got a good pace going.

Shelley Walsh: You ever see a time where we might, where Google might lose its monopoly and more search engines will start to enter the market.

But I know, obviously we do have a lot, there are a lot of alternative search engines.

Marshall Simmonds:Yeah, I think there, it would take a pretty seismic change. In how users are seeking out information. Can, Chat GPT answer better than a search engine? Probably. There’s probably some things where they’re, already succeeding and we’ve seen areas where it’s very successful.

I have a I’m, a bit still very skeptical of the answers that I see, especially when it’s making factual claims. You have to go out and still double check them, whereas a search engine is citing that information, instead of generating. The citation. So we’re still going to use that for quite a while.

But in three years, it’s going to be very different landscape. And that raises some even more optimization opportunities that we’re going to have to stay abreast of. And so that’s intriguing to me. I don’t know. I always said when I was 20, like, why would I listen to a 50 year old tell me about the Internet?

And I realized because And guess what? Now I’m 50. And now I’m telling these 20 year olds about the Internet. I realize it was a very different scene, but that was what we used to say. So I’m now 51 telling these 20 year olds how it works. There’s an opportunity for anybody that’s coming up to really understand this generative world that we’re living in.

Shelley Walsh: Oh, but how much has it really changed? Ultimately the foundations are still the same.

Marshall Simmonds: I think so. Yeah. Yeah, I certainly think so. and how we get this content into these databases, I think is still important. So technology, sorry, the, foundational elements of a site, structured data is still really important.

All these fundamentals are important still, because they have to get to the data.

Shelley Walsh: Marshall, it’s been fantastic speaking to you, and I think it’s probably a good time to wrap up, and, Thank you again for your time and taking a trip down memory lane with me.

Marshall Simmonds: Yeah, thanks Shelley. I think it’s a really good series and if anything, again, it’s just a good archive to have because I’ve enjoyed going back and watching them and seeing some of the names from the past that I know and knew so well.
I’m glad it’s getting a little bit of attention. so know your history, kids. Know what you’re doing. It’s there for a reason.

Shelley Walsh: Thank you very much for being my pioneer, Marshall.

Marshall Simmonds: Thanks Shelley. I appreciate it.