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With more than 20 years in SEO, Bill Slawski is an expert who influences a very large audience across his social followings and contributed articles to such publications as Moz and Search Engine Land. He has also published over 1,000 posts for prominent SEO blog, SEO by the Sea, of which he is the founder and editor. Bill is currently the Director of SEO Research at Go Fish Digital and has the unique distinction of being the foremost expert on Google’s patents as related to SEO.
MC: How did you go from law student to SEO practitioner?
BS: After Law School, I started working as an intern to the staff attorney of Superior Court of Delaware for the summer, and they offered me a position as an administrator of the Court. I began working as an Assistant Criminal Deputy Prothonotary for the Court, getting a look at the Criminal Justice System from the inside.
A couple of friends taught me how to build computers using original manufacturer’s equipment parts, and I built one, and learned as much about computers as I could. After 7 years as a Criminal Administrator of the Court, people started noticing that if they had a problem with their computers and asked me to help, I could often fix it much quicker than if they waited for the Judicial Information Center people to give them a hand. A position as a technical administrator for the Court opened up, and copies of the job listing started appearing on my desk. I applied, and began working as a technical administrator of the Court.
A couple of friends decided to start an online business, and I agreed to build a website for them, after picking up a “learn HTML in 2 weeks” book. I began promoting their business online after that as a part time job. I also joined a forum as a moderator, to help business owners learn how to promote their websites and businesses. That ended up turning into a much bigger forum. One of the members of the forum asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested in an SEO position at an agency, and I volunteered myself, which is how I went from being an in-house SEO to an agency SEO.
I found I enjoyed working on websites more than working for the court.
MC: Give us an idea of what SEO looked like in the 90s when you first started?
BS: When I started working on the Web, there was no Google, yet. A sister of my friend whom I had built a website for worked selling computers for Digital Equipment Corporation, and she sent us an email, telling us that DEC had started a new Website called AltaVista.Digital.com. We visited it, and decided to find out how to be listed in it. That was the first time I did SEO.
MC: How has Google’s search algorithm evolved over time to provide more relevant results for users and how have you evolved your SEO practice to adapt?
BS: There are many moving parts and redundant systems involved in how Google’s search algorithms function (there are many algorithms behind the processes involved in crawling, indexing, ranking, and displaying content at Google). The earliest version of search at Google involved ranking of web pages based upon information retrieval scores, and authority scores based upon the use of PageRank. Many changes have taken place, including Google finding ways to rank content such as News, Images, Video, Local, Social. Universal search results and one box results have started showing us blended Search Results Pages that offer a mix of different types of results based upon a range of Signals.
Google has also started moving towards a better understanding of entities or things on web pages, and the properties and attributes related to those things. We’ve been adding structured data to pages in response to this focus upon things, and making sure that sites are represented well with knowledge panels, high ranking search results, and featured snippets that answer questions that they audiences of sites may have.
MC: How would you explain Semantic SEO and how does it differ from past SEO practices?
BS: Semantic SEO is based upon a search engine better understanding the meanings and intentions behind queries. This can be helped with using Schema markup on pages, and using approaches that involve such things as Semantic Topic Models and using Context Vectors on pages so that the search engines better understand what each web page is about when it indexes them.
MC: You’re known as a Google patent expert. What made you start studying Google’s patents and what do they tell you about where SEO is heading?
BS: I was curious if I could learn more about geographic signals and local search when I was working in-house as an SEO for a company that helped people incorporate businesses in Delaware. Because the location of the business was so important, I wanted to try to get a better idea how Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft treated geographic signals. The information I received from Google’s patents provided a number of helpful ideas, and I’ve been looking at them ever since.
I’ve been seeing fewer pending patent applications filed by Google in the last year or so and from those, more include machine learning and information about neural networks. I’ve been working on learning more about AI and machine learning because of this.
MC: What kind of businesses should be thinking about local SEO and what are some basic things they can do to get started?
BS: Businesses that have a location that customers come to visit in person can find local SEO something that can lead to their doorbells and telephones ringing more often. If this fits your business, consider verifying your business in Google My Business, registering with Bing Places for Business, and Apple Maps. Try navigating to your business with Google Maps, and make sure that it delivers you correctly to the front door of the business. Having consistent Name, Address, and Phone information in local directories, and business aggregators can lead to better location prominence for your business, and review of your business can help with that as well.
MC: SEO is a very powerful tool, but results can sometimes take a while to see and be a bit unpredictable. How do you help clients set realistic goals for their SEO programs?
BS: SEO can be like starting a brand new brick-and-mortar business, with a new sign on the building – it can take a while until people start visiting you. If you communicate and interact with your audience in ways that engage them, you may start seeing visits to your site from them. This can be done on your own website, or through the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Do some social listening, and find out where people who are interested in the goods and services that you provide may be.
MC: Because SEO is, in large part, a technical discipline, what kind of developer resources does a company need to move the needle?
BS: There are SEOs who work with limited technical resources and only provide recommendations. There are also SEOs who work with developer companies who act to implement SEO recommendations. I work with a team that includes a number of developers, graphic artists and marketers of different types. These are often business decisions about whom you have on staff, and whom you may work with on a contract basis.
MC: Tell us a bit about SEO By The Sea and what inspired you to create it.
BS: I started the SEObythesea.com site in 2005 with the idea that I would hold an SEO conference, with the attendees being the presenters, much like a barcamp or a wordcamp, after seeing the costs of SEO conferences, and how much it took to travel and pay for lodging. It ended up being a lot more work than I expected, but I put the site together for it, and had a few people show up, we took a cruise in a skipjack in the Chesapeake Bay, and had some great conversations. I was left with a website for the event that I decided to use to blog to, and I wrote about patents and whitepapers, and got great responses to those posts, so I kept on writing more.
MC: You’ve developed an impressive social following. What social platforms are you most active on?
BS: I’m fairly active on Twitter, and have added three twitter chats to my calendar as recurring events. I try to participate in those every week, and enjoy doing so. Having conversations with people on Twitter can be challenging in that giving people standard stock responses can be too easy. I’ve also been active on Google+ and post to LinkedIn and Facebook. I’ve been trying to take walks daily and have been stopping on those walks, and taking photos, and sharing those in social media.
MC: How did your social following evolve and what kind of content seems to resonate most with your followers?
BS: I often research topics related to search, to try to find out more about it, and many times papers and things I write about search end up being things I publish about on social networks. I’ve also built topical lists which I check out and share from as well. I also participate in a number of Twitter chats every week, and those often attract a lot of impressions.
MC: What personal and professional value do you get from your social following? Are there any downsides?
BS: I have been invited to give presentations because of my social activities at places such as Twitter, and I have met people IRL whom I met first on Twitter and LinkedIn first. I haven’t noticed any downsides.
MC: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs in the early stages who hope to grow their businesses through social media?
BS: Social Media is a chance to receive feedback from polls, and from comments and questions that you make. You can use that to learn more about your audience. Places such as Twitter often allow you to interact, and learn from people who have expertise in areas that you may want to learn more from. Social Networks also allow you to be social and build relationships with people whom you interact with.
Bill Slawski has been doing SEO since 1996. He started by building a website for a couple of friends, and started promoting it. He worked as an in-house SEO for almost 10 years, and then joined an SEO agency. He started blogging in 2005 about search related patents and papers, and has been blogging about SEO since then, using it as a way to continuously learn about Search and SEO. Bill moved to San Diego County 4 years ago, and started speaking about SEO internationally last year.
Bill can be found online at: