Vanessa Fox Interviewed by Eric Enge

Published: June 23, 2008

Vanessa Fox Picture

Vanessa Fox's latest projects are Jane and Robot (search-friendly design patterns for web developers) and Nine by Blue (thoughts on holistic online marketing, customer relationships, and measuring search as an acquisition channel).

Vanessa is also working with Ignition Partners as an Entrepreneur in Residence and is Features Editor at Search Engine Land.

Before this, Vanessa spent a lot of time building web sites, being a user advocate, developing products, and writing. When she was at Google, she built Webmaster Central.

Vanessa does quite a bit of writing, and has a popular blog. She is also a frequent speaker at industry conferences. Vanessa also consults with different companies, particularly on building online communities and customer engagement, a holistic approach to online marketing, search metrics and improvements, and product strategy.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: A lot of people think of SEO as the practice of manipulating search engines. Itís really interesting because sometimes outsiders write these inflammatory pieces about how SEO is comprised mostly of crooks. For that matter, some people who are in SEO are in fact spending their time trying to do just that. They are trying to manipulate search engines, and thatís the way they view their job.

But, Iíd like to back up to a more strategic level and talk about some of the issues of customer experiences. And, weíll get into this more later, but also figuring out the types of people that come to your site, how they interact with it, and how that affects website design. So, this is stepping aside a bit from SEO and into a broader look at online marketing.

So, any thoughts on that that youíd like to start us with, and how you design a site from a customer experience perspective?

Vanessa Fox: Absolutely. Thatís where the name for Jane and Robot originated. When you build a website, you shouldnít just think about SEO, you can think of users and SEO at the same time. And so, Jane obviously is the user, and then the robot would be the search engines. You should really take a holistic view when you are building your website, because you can do things that will work well for all the different important aspects, and they donít have to contradict each other.

Some think that if you are doing SEO, that means you are ignoring your user. I think if you focus on the user, itís the other way around. You focus on your user, and thatís going to cause SEO, usability, and all types of other things to fall into place. Some people in SEO try to chase the algorithms. The algorithms always change from the search engines, and there are all of these little factors, hundreds of different little things, that affect it.

Some people still will jump up and go after them. If you do that, you are spending a lot of time and a lot of effort on things that are just fluctuating all the time. Whereas, if you really think about what the search engines are looking for, which is the best possible result for users, then all of the fluctuations arenít really going to impact you as much and your website is ultimately going to align really, really well with what the search engine is looking for.

The other thing thatís positive is that if you really think about your user and what the user experience should be, then when you do get the traffic from search, you are going to hang on to those users. Because thatís really ultimately what your goal is, to add to the customer base and engage with people. So, if you really think about engaging users when you build the site, then all the traffic is really going to get you somewhere.

Eric Enge: Right. From a link building perspective, a very good customer experience should make it more likely that people will link to your site.

Vanessa Fox: Oh, absolutely.

Eric Enge: The other thing I have noticed from the sites weíve worked on when these algorithm changes come through, is that there a raging reaction on the forums of everybody who has been setback by the algorithm changes. The sites that we work on keep going up.

Vanessa Fox: Yes

Eric Enge: Because, the search engines are striving towards an ideal. And, if you strive towards that same ideal, they get closer and closer to it, and you end up winning as a result.

Vanessa Fox: Thatís absolutely the case.

Eric Enge: Indeed. So, you and I talked a little bit about the customer coming back, and just having their goodwill. Reputation has a lot of levels of impact, doesnít it?

Vanessa Fox: Yes, absolutely. I think the idea has always been, offline and online, that if a brand really builds up a relationship with customers and builds up their reputation and credibility, itís only going to help them overall. A customer is likely to come back or likely to tell other people about it and recommend it; bringing that from the offline world into the online world.

Look at Zappos for instance. They are a shoe company, but really they tell people that they are a customer service company, not a shoe store. You know that if youíve ordered shoes from them, you can return any of them that you want, and they will pay the shipping.

If you ever have a problem, they are super responsive. So they build themselves up to be more than a place to buy shoes, but as this credible, reputable source that people end up having a relationship with. I think that really starts to just build on itself.

Eric Enge: Right. Zappos is purely online. As you say they do have a very friendly return policy, which is good thing, because a lot of times with clothing, people want to see and touch it.

Vanessa Fox: Well, exactly. It was hard for a lot of apparel type of companies to move into the online space. Zappos started out online and they were able to overcome that by being very customer friendly. If you talk to their CEO they expect that they are going to get lots and lots of returns. Thatís just how their business works, they want you to order as many shoes as you want and experiment with them all just like you were in a store and then send back the ones that you donít want. Thatís one way theyíve been able to build the sales that they have.

Eric Enge: Right. So, it often seems to me that people that already have an established brand have a major advantage. A big name company is going to get lots of links and lots of visibility no matter what they do; but whatís the recourse for somebody who doesnít have the advantage of leveraging a major brand?

Vanessa Fox: You are right that a major brand has already built up their brand in other ways before they came online. So, itís just like anything else -- if someone is starting a company new now, whether itís offline or online, you have to go through that; the period of building up your brand. I think that somebodyís smaller or newer company in a way is having advantage on the other hand, because they donít have all of the legacy offline type of marketing to start with.

They are starting new; and I find that a lot of these brands that have been around a while, when they try to move online, they try to use the same paradigms and many things that theyíve used offline into online. I find that it can be really helpful when you look at your online marketing with new eyes versus looking at how the old ways worked offline.

Looking at the Zappos example again, they started out online, but they rank higher and get more of sales than other well-known shoe companies, because they have been able to take advantage of some of this new online world. If you look at some of these older brands, they are used to printing brochures or magazine ads, that type of thing. So, they might build a site entirely in Flash, and they might be less open to the idea of doing a lot of social networking. They might think they donít want to have a blog or a discussion area, because they want to have control over the way the brand is discussed.

They may miss the point that now that we are in an online world, they donít have control over their brand anyway. People are going to talk about them, so they may as well be involved one way or the other. So, I think a lot of times itís harder for the older brands to come around to that, and maybe some other newer brands are a little more nimble and flexible.

Eric Enge: Right. That creates an opportunity to build a new brand, because just understanding the interaction and expectations on the internet is the idea. Like you said, you donít own your brand on the internet.

You may think you do, but you donít. And, if one of your people who is supposed to be installing cable falls asleep on your couch and gets it videotaped and pasted on You-Tube, your brand is going to take a hit.

Vanessa Fox: I think in the offline world these things still happened, and people still talked about them. But, the brands just didnít hear about it, because the conversations were happening at peoplesí houses or over the phone or whatever. Now with the Internet itís just much more visible and can spread. And so the brands may as well take advantage of that by being able to more immediately see whatís going on, and get the feedback and be seen as really responsive. Turn it into a positive, because these things are happening anyway.

Weíve certainly seen some really good examples of companies that have been able to take really negative situations and turn them into a positive. If you can be responsive and really make the changes and have it not just to be something that you say, but something you actually take action on, people really appreciate that.

Eric Enge: Yes indeed. There was an article that we were involved in creating recently that we managed to get to the homepage of Digg, and the comment stream was really interesting. There was a really negative comment made by someone; and it turns out that they were questioning the opinion of an expert medical doctor on a medical topic.

Nut jobs saying nasty things are part of what the brands fear on the Internet. But what happened in fact is a common event in social media. People donít like nut jobs, so the person got shouted down by other members of the community.

Vanessa Fox: Yes.

Eric Enge: The comment stream is not quite as bad as you might fear it would be. People were afraid their brands would just be constantly shot down no matter what they do on a social network, but thatís not the case.

Vanessa Fox: I think thatís absolutely true. I saw some numbers the other day; something like there are four times to five times more positive reviews on the web than negative ones. Whereas, people are always worried that no one is going to post anything but a negative review. But thatís not the case. I think people are motivated just to post online, because they want to help other people.

Part of that helping is talking about positive experiences. And when someone posts something negative thatís just completely out of line, you have a lot of support as a brand. You may not even have to be the one who responds; you may be able to get your customers who like you to respond, which is better anyway, right? Itís certainly more of a credible thing to have your customers standup for you than for you to do it yourself; so you can really harness that really well I think.

Eric Enge: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean itís the heart of all this; here we are, we are thinking about launching a new website to do something. And, you gave a great customer experience, but a couple of things still have to have a real deep level of value.

It has to be distinctive as well. You canít be the fifteenth version of something else thatís been put out there. Like the Jane and Robot site, you are clearly striving to bring something new and help a different group of people in a different and distinct way that really adds value to their day.

Vanessa Fox: Right. Thatís certainly one thing that you should look at which is what do you have thatís going to cause users to come to you versus the choices that are already out there. Because, if there is already something thatís serving them well; they need a reason to switch. People just donít switch for no reason. What can you bring that is different and new from what they have?

Eric Enge: Right, absolutely. So, one thing too is once youíve that you are an expert in something, you can turn around and use that as an outbound marketing vehicle and start approaching other sites and writing the content as a way of getting exposure for your new awesome resource.

Vanessa Fox: Sure. In terms of syndication specifically I wrote a blog post recently. From a search engine perspective, you have to keep in mind what they want, which is that they want to provide the best results for the search. They are not going to serve multiple versions of the same content. So, if youíre intent with syndication is to get the traffic and get awareness out there then absolutely you could look into that, but donít necessarily expect that your version of the content on your own site will rank.

Eric Enge: Right. But, you need to understand how to deliver something different than whatís on your page, so that you are sharing something that brings value in a somewhat different way.

Vanessa Fox: Yes. And, there are some other suggestions that I talked about in my post; and one was exactly what you are saying; have a version for your own site, and then write something thatís different for the syndication. I think that thatís a really good strategy to employ, because then you could provide a lot of details about something on your own site, and then write something thatís more of a high level overview that points back to it . If you have the exact same information, thatís when you run into problems.

Eric Enge: Right. Another aspect of this is to get a link back from the article to the original source of the content.

Vanessa Fox: Yeah. And, itís interesting how many syndicated articles donít do that. I think itís helpful even for the audience of the site thatís syndicating, or for whoever is receiving the content. I Itís really important to have an absolute link back into your own site just in case your stuff gets scraped. But, if you output in RSS feed, the likelihood is that your stuff is going to get scraped, right? So, just put some absolute links in that.

Eric Enge: RSS could mean really simple scraping.

Vanessa Fox: Really simple scraping; thatís exactly right.

Eric Enge: Yes, indeed. Ultimately, we are just trying to give the search engine as many clues as possible as to who the original author of the content at the end of the day basically?

Vanessa Fox: Absolutely.

Eric Enge: Switching gears a little bit; if you produce this awesome resource and you are trying to figure out how to deal with your customers, what are some other tools you can recommend? Tools that help you get to know your customers and potential customers better, and therefore be in a better position to deliver them the value they are looking for?

Vanessa Fox: There are lots of things out there obviously, lots of tools and lots of data. Certainly you want to do a bit of keyword research, and that not only helps you with search engine optimization, but it helps you understand the language of your customers. And, you certainly want to relate to them with the type of language that they use already.

Eric Enge: Yes. I like to point out to people that even if you didnít have search engines; if you had access to keyword tool, a traditional marketer should want to use that.

Vanessa Fox: Yeah, thatís absolutely the case. Even if you donít do anything with search engine optimization, the keyword stuff is just great to see what people are talking about. So, you can use it in a number of ways. In particular you can use it to see how they talk about things, so what types of words that they use. But, you can also use it to see what kinds of things they are interested in that are related to what you do.

I was doing research to see whether plastic bags or paper bags were more environmentally sound, because thatís a big debate. So, I did all this research, and I found lots and lots of information, but one of the best places I found information was on the site called ReusableBags.com. Basically, itís a site that you can go to, to buy those grocery bags that are made out of cloth to reuse them.

Eric Enge: Right.

Vanessa Fox: But, they had done this whole article that talked about the pros and cons of paper and plastic, and it went into some of the data. And so, I thought that they had done a really good job of not just optimizing for reusable bags, and all the variations of the term reusable bags, but they also took a look to see what other related kinds of topics this audience will be interested in.

Well, they are probably interested in paper versus plastic; so being able to use other keyword research to see what topics your audience might care about is really useful.

The other tool that I think just about everyone has, but maybe people donít use as effectively as they could is their web analytics package. For instance, a lot of people now look at visitors.But, if you ask a lot of people what their bounce rate is, they have no idea. So, you may think you have a certain number of visitors, but maybe quite a bit less than you are expecting, once you take into account the number of people that are abandoning as soon as they land on your site. There is so much that you can do with your web analytics in terms of understanding your customers, like what page did they tend to abandon your site on? How far along did they go in the conversion process?

Maybe you have your site set up in a convoluted way that causes people to abandon before they achieve their goal or the goals that you have for them. Take a look at search in particular; what are the terms that people use to find your site, and what is the abandonment rate for each of those. So, like you may find that people really like your site for some things, but they really hate your site for other things.

So, you might not really have the content in your site that you think, but if you are just looking at the overall visitors and the overall bounce rate, you are not actually looking at the terms themselves; then you donít really get a complete picture of how your customers are interacting with your site.

Eric Enge: Right. The other thing you can do is look at the paths they tend to travel.

Vanessa Fox: Yes absolutely. It may be completely different than what you think. The entrance points may be different. But also, I think you can understand a lot by seeing how people navigate your site. You may find that they are not taking a direct path, that they are going back and forth, and back and forth, and so it may not be as obvious as you think. And, of course there are lots of other tools out there besides your standard web analytics packages.

There is the CrazyEgg software, which shows you heat maps based on the click behavior. There is lots of stuff out there like that that can help you see how people are really using your site.

The other big thing that everyone should do that no one seems to do is AB testing and multivariate testing. I talk to a lot of people who think they are about to overhaul their site and make it so much better. And so, I ask them if they have done any testing for the new site, and they havenít . And, itís like well, how do you know really if this is going to be such a huge improvement; it may make your site even worse? Especially these days when there are so many inexpensive or no-cost ways out there to do the testing itís certainly worthwhile to do.

Eric Enge: Sure. Google Website Optimizer does it, and itís free.

Vanessa Fox: And, itís easy to use.

Eric Enge: When I explain to people why they should do landing page or site optimization, I point out that the chances that you guessed the perfect solution based on sitting around a table with a few people and making some decisions are essentially zero.

Vanessa Fox: Right.

Eric Enge: So, with a disciplined test philosophy gains are inevitable. That doesnít mean that your first test is going to offer you gains, your first test may be worse than what you are currently doing.

Vanessa Fox: Right.

Eric Enge: But even that would be information, and you can fuss around with these kinds of things, and get to a point where you are in fact doing better.

Vanessa Fox: Yes. And, as much as you might know about usability, or your customers, I know when I approach a project and I think I know exactly what is going to happen that I am never right 100% of time. There are always things that you donít think about, or you wouldnít normally get involved in.

Eric Enge: And, here I thought you were the exception.

Vanessa Fox: You get so involved in a project that itís difficult or impossible to look at it objectively as a person who has never seen it. I always suggest any amount of testing that you could do before launching. I mean itís somewhat less expensive to do the testing and make the changes than it is to change later. But, even if you have stuff thatís launched; add some testing and just incrementally iterate.

Eric Enge: Yes, indeed. The other thing to remember is you are not the target audience for your website.

Vanessa Fox: Right. Even, if you think you are, you are not. You canít possibly be, because you are too involved with it.

Eric Enge: What about the upfront usability testing?

Vanessa Fox: Yes, absolutely. Thatís the same thing, right? I did a lot of that when I was doing offline product stuff; just client based software. The way someone approaches the task is not necessarily what you envision, and the way they think about things is not always what you expect.

I always think itís a great idea to get a usability person; someone who really knows what they are doing with usability and set that up. You could even get in the lab. There are lots of things that you can do; but even if you canít do something, get someone in whose skill set is in usability and it helps a lot. Itís amazing. They really understand the fact that human mind works.

Eric Enge: Exactly. If we backup again to the broader topic of holistic online marketing, I may think everything we have been talking about has been oriented around broader, purest views of online marketing divorced from SEO, and building customer relationships and these sorts of things. But, at the end of the day, isnít this potentially a brilliant SEO strategy?

Vanessa Fox: Oh, of course. Going back to what we were talking about at the beginning. Everyone is looking to understand the search engine algorithms. But, really we do know the intent of the search engine algorithms, which is to give the searcher the best result. And so a lot of people spend their time really trying to breakdown what algorithms are.

But, even if you could breakdown the algorithms, it would all point to that one thing, which are the best results for the searcher. So, just building your site that way aligns you really, really well. Itís as if you knew all the secrets of the algorithm, and implemented them in your own site without all the work; and without all the math, right?

Eric Enge: Right.

Vanessa Fox: So, it certainly helps you from an SEO perspective. If you just look at usability alone, and you look at all the ways to make sure that your site is usable, that alone from a technical perspective helps you with SEO. What do you do about AJAX, Flash images, and JavaScript navigation? Even if you are looking at it from a technical perspective, usability is helpful for SEO.

But then, once you start looking at content, and you start looking at talking in the language of your customers being the most useful resource for information, itís going to cause people to link to you. Itís going to cause people to return again and again. Itís really a cycle that just keeps going. Each thing helps the other and it just goes up and up I think.

Eric Enge: Yes. Another thing I think about here too is the way people who have been operating in this holistic way, and have gotten to a point where they have an authoritative site of their own. The way they think about the asset theyíve built is quite different than a lot of other sites; isnít it?

Vanessa Fox: Yes thatís certainly, right. You are going to get quality sites linking to you if they have reason to link to you, right? If the content you offer is useful for their visitors.

Eric Enge: Right. The sites you get links from are ones that actually care about their visitors.

Vanessa Fox: Right. And so, those types of sites are the ones that search engines are probably going to think of as the most authoritative, because they have already been evaluated as being a useful site. And so, those are obviously the sites you want links from, and you are only going to be able to achieve those links if you have a useful site. So, there is certainly no manipulation involved or any tricks, itís pretty straightforward.

Eric Enge: Right. The search engines are going to constantly try to better identify those sites that have that methodology, because they fit the original intent of the page rank algorithm the best.

Vanessa Fox: Right, yes. Well, and not just the original PageRank algorithm, but the intent behind that original PageRank algorithm, right?

Eric Enge: Right.

Vanessa Fox: So, that PageRank algorithm itself may change over time, but itís always going to be for that original purpose.

Eric Enge: Alright, great. Do you have some other things that you think would be good to add to the conversation?

Vanessa Fox: Well, I just think that itís really useful when you are doing any online marketing to think about how what you are doing is going to impact the other silos of online marketing, and think about how the things that they are doing can help you out. I find often that youíve got a company where someone is doing SEO on the site, and someone else is doing paid stuff.

Then youíve got the product people who are interested in marketing and their products. And, a lot of times those divisions work on isolation, whereas if they shared their information they have on their customers, theyíd all have a more complete picture of their customers. If you had email marketing, and you are sending people to a page, you want that page to be as useful as possible.

That also may be the same page that comes up in a search result, and it maybe the same page that is linked to a PPC ad, but maybe you have a different page for each one. Certainly if those people talked more and had a really good and comprehensive strategy, it makes for a more seamless experience for the customer. I think just the data alone can really help you out.

A lot of times each of those divisions feel that the other may overrun them and that the impact would hurt them if they were to work with the other. But, I think the opposite can be the case, where they can actually help each other and the whole can be greater than the parts.

Eric Enge: Right. It can be very difficult to maintain multiple versions of the content.

Vanessa Fox: Right. But, that ends up happening in a sense; no one wants to give up control of what they have. But, I do think that there are really good ways that people can work together on that stuff.

Eric Enge: An integrated approach to online marketing.

Vanessa Fox: Crazy, yeah. So, thatís what I am working on with Nine By Blue. This is a new project which is designed to look at all those things. The Nine By Blue site is all about taking data from all different marketing areas and turning that into something more. Making it a better experience overall for your users; understanding who your customers are, and how you can best build relationships with them.

Eric Enge: Excellent! Well, thank you very much.

Vanessa Fox: Yes, thank you!

Have comments or want to discuss? You can comment on the Vanessa Fox interview here.

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About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.

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