Expose: Search Engine Bloggers Tell All

There is nothing like getting good scoop, and this is exactly what the panelists served up during the 2006 SES San Jose session, “Speaking Unofficially: Search Engine Bloggers.”

Hosted by Danny Sullivan, four prominent bloggers revealed how this extracurricular activity has affected personal life, the firms they work for and the industry as a whole.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 6-10, 2006, San Jose, California.

Life before fame

There was a time when Jeremy Zawodny was simply a Yahoo! employee!, Matt Cutts a Google software engineer, Gary Price a librarian and Niall Kennedy a self-proclaimed feed syndication geek.

Those days, however, are long gone. Today, each provides a glimpse into the secretive world of the leading search engines, garnering more attention than perhaps they even thought. While Kennedy, Zawodny and Price have been blogging for years, Cutts’ blog has just celebrated its one year blog anniversary. Egged on by Sullivan, Cutts decided to go for it. The initial response over the “all is fair in love and search engines” approach was wild. “He’s criticizing Google. Now he’s praising Yahoo! And then criticizing Yahoo!” said Sullivan. “I was thinking, he is crazy. What is he doing?”

You rebel

Some audience members were skeptical. Are these individuals really speaking their minds, or are they simply talking heads, pushed forth by a clever PR team? While all of the bloggers insist that their words are completely independent, the level of interaction with PR, product and legal teams vary.

Cutts is firm about his stance. “I work on quality and that’s it. If someone perceives you as a shill, you become less than useless.” He does send particular pieces to legal when concerned about being fair and accurate.

Zawodny and Price, however, have a more formal relationship with their PR teams. They recognize that blogs are perceived as news, and as Zawodny notes, sometimes his PR team will send an email stating “we’re watching (wink, wink).”

Regarding product teams, Cutts retains his candor. When someone asks him about a Google product he doesn’t use, he says so. “Otherwise you’d be fake,” he said.

Zawodny does give a heads up before a potentially volatile product post. “They appreciate it,” he said, but “no one every said ‘you need to change that.'” They do say, ‘let us tell you some more.’ Price agrees, comparing his role to that of product development utility player.

Kennedy, on the other hand, is a bit more conservative. He makes sure that products are officially released before he posts. This is particularly helpful if a piece of functionality he likes is not included in the final release. He can then edit his saved post accordingly.

Attention, attention, Cutts is on vacation

Over time, each of the bloggers has experienced the ups and downs.

Turning off the computer, according to Price is “very, very difficult.” In addition, the hoi polli gets restless when a blog is not updated with the latest news. This was evident earlier this year when Cutts went on an extended vacation. After he gave his readership a heads up, the industry spent a month blogging about his absence. His return was heralded by Barry Schwartz on Search Engine Watch via the post “Matt Cutts Is Back from Vacation.”

Furthermore, if a blogger criticizes a particular product, the engine usually responds with an update, which prompts an expectation from readership that the blogger return to the original post and update immediately. The panelists conceded that there are teams of people behind each blog to help them through such scenarios.

Other challenges include the question of imbalance, where one voice unfairly carries more weight in the blogosphere. The echo chamber indeed exists. This is true for some of the more vocal bloggers who express opinion on who they think should be fired at a particular firm or when Ballmer’s shirt is all wrong for a press conference.

Yet freedom of speech is a beautiful thing. Price commented that it depends upon “how much chutzpah you have.” Clearly, some bloggers enjoy brash moves, while others stick to the polite facts. Another upside is the ability to rectify a misquoted statement. A stern word was reserved for bloggers and reporters who not only get the facts wrong, but do not link back to the original post.

There is also a sense of Good Samaritan. Kennedy and Price enjoy the good will of bringing people together to directly solve problems.

Tips for the uninitiated

Many practical tips came out of the session. On the topic of knowing when to draw the line, Zawodny learned the hard way. “I repeatedly crossed the line, and was told so.” Price’s role at Search Engine Watch leant toward a philosophy that “this is about preserving reputation.”

And while Kennedy’s time at Technorati was helpful, his secret life as a soccer coach helped. “We were told that if you travel to a country and say something bad, you could cause an international scandal. Or the bookies want to know ‘how is that relationship with the player and his wife?’ It can change betting odds.”

Price had some helpful hints for avoiding information overload. While RSS was designed to ease information overload, he has found that some people now have too many feeds to deal with. He has since started to send a weekly email to keep his feed top of mind.

On the topic of moving past the typed word, Kennedy’s weekly podcast was born out of a desire to learn more about indexing audio. Cutts’ entrance into video had a humorous origin. “My wife is away for a few weeks.” Completely bored, he brought all the lamps into the living room and made his first videoblog, which has been downloaded 80,000 times.

So far, he likes it. “It is kind of nice. The main reason I am doing this, (and will need to stop when my wife is back), is you can write for 45 minutes, and you might say lots of things, or you can just talk for 5 minutes, and If you are lucky, others will transcribe, post and get link bait.”

Price, recently engaged, is skeptical about video blogging. “I don’t know what my girlfriend will think about redecorating.”

For the truly advanced, screencasting perked everyone up, including Sullivan. Zawodny suggested that the tools to create a digital recording of one’s computer screen output are advanced enough to put in the average person’s hand.

So that’s the scoop—for now.

Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant for the interactive advertising sector and its investors. She can be reached at saraholoubek@gmail.com.

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