Eric Enge and Rebecca Lieb talk about Search Engine Watch and Online Media

Picture of Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb is editor-in-chief of the ClickZ Network. She has held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services consultancies, including Siegel & Gale. She worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann’s German network, RTL Television. As a journalist, Rebecca has written on media for numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and spent five years as Variety’s Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. She’s also a member of the graduate faculty at New York University’s Center for Publishing, where she also serves on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Excellent. So, I like the change in the design of the Search Engine Watch site that I saw the other day. It looks to me like Search Engine Watch is becoming more and more like ClickZ in structure, and look and feel. Is this a trend that you are going to continue with?

Rebecca Lieb: We mostly tried to make Search Engine Watch more navigable. Sites get bigger as they approach and exceed ten years in existence, which both sites are. So one of the reasons for doing this was to improve usability. But, the fact that the two sites are visually more integrated is very deliberate. Since, the inception of the ClickZ Network which brought eighteen sites under the ClickZ umbrella, Search Engine Watch has always been a part of that network, but had a very independent life and with a reason. ClickZ’s editorial mission is to cover all things, advertising and marketing, as they are related to interactive media.

Search Engine Watch is all search, all the time. Obviously, a lot of that content and focus is advertising and marketing related, but not necessarily all of it. We do have a huge overlap of readership; which we try to encourage, because Search Engine marketing obviously can’t ignore the rest of interactive marketing and advertising any more than the rest of interactive marketing and advertising can ignore search. But that said, while the sites are more integrated visually there has been no change to the editorial mandate of either site, and they continue to run as before.

There is still a lot of differentiation. For example, Search Engine Watch has forums, a paid membership section, and proprietary content. Everything on ClickZ is free. ClickZ also has search content that doesn’t appear in Search Engine Watch. We have half a dozen columnists like Mike Grehan, Kevin Lee, Shari Thurow, Brian Wool, PJ Fusco, and others, all writing columns on search for ClickZ with a very rigid marketing and advertising oriented focus. So, visual integration but separate identities. They are going to continue to be separate sites.

Eric Enge: Can you talk a little bit about the expert columns that you have introduced on Search Engine Watch?

Rebecca Lieb: We introduced that to Search Engine Watch about three months ago. It’s been very popular, it’s been something frankly that I wanted to do for a long, long time. We’ve got a huge number of search experts and practioners contributing to Search Engine Watch, primarily on the blog and contributing articles to Search Day. But, we also want to give readers who are really focused on a single area of practice, an opportunity to tune into that channel so to speak. So, people who are in-house SEOs or doing vertical search or just paid search have the opportunity to subscribe to those feeds or those newsletters or read those very specifically focused columns on this site.

Its fine-tuning content and making it easier to find it, as well as providing a venue for some of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in the industry to share their knowledge. The value proposition is that these are practitioners talking about what they do everyday. They are not journalists, they are not editorial staff, they are the people with dirty hands. They are the ones, who are doing this, and they are the ones with the knowledge to share, and they are the ones with the great opinions.

One mistake that people make often when they read our columns is that they thing what they read is the editorial viewpoint of the publications, and it never necessarily is. I can disagree passionately with what a particular column would say. What’s important is that I think that their opinions are informed and practiced enough to be aired. I love it, by the way, when they get passionate, because the bottom line is they are supposed to make people think and do their jobs better.

Eric Enge: How are the content feeds are structured?

Rebecca Lieb: We want people to be able to tune into the channel that they are most interested in. So, if you are doing organic search and not paid, you can subscribe to organic and tune out paid or vice versa.

We operate by the same system on ClickZ, where you can subscribe to search stuff and ignore email, or you can subscribe to email and ignore search. We are trying to give users a lot of choice here.

Eric Enge: Are the columns assigned to different channels or are the articles slotted in different channels one by one?

Rebecca Lieb: The columns are assigned to different channels, each one resides in a different container, paid, organic, in-house, vertical, local etc. You can also choose the “All you can eat” menu, you can have a varied meal, a buffet. Each reader is free to take as much or as little of what they feel is relevant for them.

Eric Enge: What about the Search Engine Watch blog? Are there changes in store for that?

Rebecca Lieb: I think we’ve got a great stable of bloggers, but we are never adverse to new additions to the fold if there are any qualified applicants out there. I think what we are trying to do on the SEW blog is focus less on news, since we do have a professional news editor on staff right now, Kevin Newcomb who has been working on this site for over a year. He came over from ClickZ, where he was covering the search feed. We are trying to get a little more opinion and attitude into the blog, in addition to just documenting the goings on in the search industry. That sort of news is very, very commoditized right now, and we value our bloggers for their opinions and their insight as much as we do for the fact that they can get the same feeds, anybody else is tracking search does.

Eric Enge: One of the big reasons for valuing opinions highly is that the search space is so complicated and so guarded in secrecy that you inevitably learn by doing. As a result, so much is driven by opinion, and you are not dealing with very many nailed down facts.

Rebecca Lieb: Exactly. And there are so many snake-oil salespeople then in this business, as you well know. These are the guys who go on client sales calls and say: ” Google has let us look into their black box so hire us”. It’s BS and you and I know its BS, it’s self evidently BS, and why a multibillion dollar market cap company let anybody peek into their black box is something with anybody with a modicum of common sense should realize. It’s like you or I hiring a plumber to fix your car. We live and breathe this stuff, other people don’t. It’s also important to have search resources out there that are not just for the community and for this tightly net little pond of search people who all know and love each other, but for the novices, who really need help and advice on getting the most out of their SEO or their SEM. We see them as the constituency we are also serving.

Share experiences, be a better client, make a better choice. Spend your money more wisely. Everybody can’t be an expert in everything.

Eric Enge: How has readership done in the past year?

Rebecca Lieb: Readership has been steadily climbing, both in terms of the website and our access and our email newsletter subscriptions. Search is huge, search is getting bigger. It is definitely not flattening nor is it declining, it’s on a steady increase.

Eric Enge: Is there anything else that you can offer in terms of insight into the future plans for ClickZ and Search Engine Watch?

Rebecca Lieb: We are actually having our strategy session week after next. So, there are a lot of ideas right now, many more, say, than there are future plans. I will tell you that we are staffing up editorially on both publications, so I expect some announcements soon, and some new ideas from some new people. ClickZ is trying to get into the event space a little more strongly after having left it under our old owners.

Eric Enge: Switching directions a little bit, let’s talk about some things that you have written about and expressed opinions about, and get into general web marketing type topics. Let’s start with what you see as the biggest challenges for search marketers today?

Rebecca Lieb: Finding the skills, and or hiring the talent to accomplish the job. I get calls from recruiters all the time and they are looking so hard for search marketers and advertisers and people with experience in this industry. I think we’ve all gotten those calls. Once I was playing with one of them and said, “there are tons of people out there, I went to school with all kinds of people who majored in search engine marketing.” Its education, it’s getting supply up to the level of demand, and there is huge demand right now for search skills and knowledge and expertise. There the people who actually have that are in very short supply and in very high demand. Overall I would say talent is the biggest challenge. That will change but it’s not going to change overnight, obviously.

Eric Enge: Not too long ago I interviewed Rand Schulman who is the over at Unica, and he gave a very interesting comment. He said that the way it works is the colleges begin to carry the curriculum once the first people who make a lot of money off of that field retire and start contributing to the college, and it doesn’t happen until that.

Rebecca Lieb: Well, maybe all these recently invented Google and Google millionaires will retire early. So, this could happen on an accelerated sort of Internet time. But, I hear the same thing at traditional ad agencies looking for interactive marketing talent, people who know how to buy interactive media, who can design it, who can produce it, who can strategize it. We’ve got a wait for these kids with Facebook accounts to grow up and tell us what to do to a certain extent.

Eric Enge: Let’s say you are a search marketer and you are focusing on search, what are the issues you think that an individual faces in terms of being successful?

Rebecca Lieb: A few years ago search was relegated to a Webmaster/IT function in most companies and by most marketers. That’s completely different now. Search is now an integrated marketing function and is recognized by such. I also see search as something that has the potential to breach that eternal schism between marketing and IT, which continues to plague us all, because, search marketers tend to have the skills on both sides of the brain. This could actually be a benefit to all marketers and all IT people and developers and webmasters anywhere. I would love to see that happen actually. We can all get along and just be friends. Search marketers are also going to have to really focus on career and stability. It’s such a go-go market right now. They are continually getting offered better and better compensation packages. They are always going for that brass ring and the brass ring always gets raised a little higher. These tend to be people that are going to have to strike a balance between work and life and learn that stability is really part of the experience of the job, not just the skill set. Does that make sense?

Eric Enge: What about the biggest opportunities for search marketers then?

Rebecca Lieb: The CMO, the CEO and the COO are all beginning to really get this stuff. They realize that it has to be a part, not only of any marketing strategy, but any web strategy. There is another really big opportunity as I see it, with the coming of vertical search specialization. The advent of universal search can really drive this. I think that optimizing media other than text and web pages is going to become a skill set very highly in demand very, very quickly.

Eric Enge: Right. There are going to be a lot of opportunities there, that’s for sure.

Rebecca Lieb: A lot of opportunity to optimize audio and video and feeds of all sorts. That’s going to be huge.

Eric Enge: What kind of changes do you think we’ll see in the next couple of years in advertising and media on news sites?

Rebecca Lieb: I see all kinds of evolution and I don’t see people settling into any one model. In fact I am seeing more and more experimentation. If you look at the New York Times, for example, they’ve got sponsored content, and things like send-to-a-friend link that was brought to you by all kinds of promotions, to contextual ads and interstitials and rich media. Everybody is trying everything. I don’t think anybody knows what works anymore than they did back in 1999. There is just more to choose from. Behavioral is going to increase in importance tremendously. We are seeing that on the ad network side. Why do you think AOL bought Tacoda this week for example? We are going to be seeing it a lot more from the companies that run the major engines, because they’ve got the data.

Eric Enge: One of the issues I see with this is that there is a natural consumer pushback. Advertising has evolved in many dramatic ways. For example, with television ads it evolved from just pushing a message in your face to becoming entertainment and trying to become as entertaining as the TV show you are watching.

Rebecca Lieb: That’s really what we are seeing on the video sites. Branded entertainment, entertaining messages, throwing your spot up on YouTube, but everything can’t be entertaining all the time. For example, it could also be informational. A trend that fascinates me more and more advertisers are rolling their own media. One example of this is American Express. On their website they’ve got eRaven, an Epic production pushing their product and service. And, very often it involves Jerry Seinfeld or Ellen DeGeneres or someone like this. This stuff is very entertaining. I think that in the consumer arena, this something that is going to potentially hurt the portals.

Eric Enge: They are going to move the interest away from the portals.

Rebecca Lieb: If you believe in ‘if you build that they will come,’ it doesn’t really matter where you build it, does it, on the Internet? It’s not like you have to brainstorm in whether to get to one site rather than another, especially when the sites are already heavily trafficked. That’s just clicking on a link. But, as for pushback, I love that there is pushback on the Internet, because it forces people to behave. There has been pushback in every other advertising channel, from direct mail, which is a pain in the butt, to dealing with too many ads on TV. I personally tear ads out of magazines before I actually pick them up and start reading them. With the Internet, it’s the degree of interactivity that makes it so evident, but it’s not like it wasn’t going on before. We just didn’t see it going on before, because it happened behind close doors.

Eric Enge: Another thing that fascinates me is the evolution of advertising in the virtual world of Second Life. Major brands are actively going in and creating virtual properties within Second Life. Going through the media production effort, and launching real world properties in that world.

Rebecca Lieb: Yes. It’s not uncomplicated to get into Second Life. It’s not like building a MySpace page. It requires a certain degree of technical know how and expertise and an ongoing commitment.

Eric Enge: One case study was presented in one of the Search Engine Strategies shows, and this was about Starwood Hotels.

Rebecca Lieb: Yes. They were one of the first major brands to do a major Second Life campaign and very successfully. They tested out of a new hotel brand called Aloft, and what they did was they built the prototype in Second Life and they invited the denizens of Second Life to critique the prototype. They actually made quite a few changes to the design based on that user feedback such as putting radios in their showers. They also got input on some lobby reconfigurations and things of that nature. That was a very successful campaign.

It was successful because it wasn’t just Second Life, it was an integrated campaign. There was a search component, there was a blog component. Although, there was advertising in Second Life before that, there was advertising by and for Second Life denizens which we actually covered a couple of years ago. The company got miles and miles and miles of ink, and they really got a lot of publicity for this brand. They knew that that would happen, and that was part of the strategy.

They also had an exit strategy. You don’t keep a prototype open forever. This is a project that had a beginning and middle and an end, and they very wisely had an end planned, which was closing down the prototype and donating to real-estate that they had acquired in Second Life to a non-profit organization that was active within the virtual world. I am seeing more and more brand advertisers going into Second Life without that level of commitment and without that level of strategy. Abandoned businesses and storefronts and islands are littering the landscape and damaging those brands.

I am not adverse to Second Life marketing strategies, what I am adverse to is having to do it because everyone else is doing it. That’s never a good strategy for marketing or advertising or anything else.

Eric Enge: At the heart of all these things, and when they are done well, is a really exceptional amount of insight into the audience you are working with.

Rebecca Lieb: Second Life is not a tremendously huge audience, and it’s a very select audience. They are early-adopting people who are probably very anti-corporate. I wrote recently about the issue of sex and Second Life. Sex is huge in Second Life particularly, very creative variations of sexual acts and practices. Somebody criticized me for that and said I was sex phobic or sex adverse or something like that. That’s really not it at all. This is an adjacency issue and anybody advertising in any media is conscious of adjacency. What do you want to put your brand next to, and what do you want to be next to your brand? There are things in Second Life that could be next to your brand that I probably shouldn’t talk about in this interview.

Eric Enge: Recently, we have another example with Michael Vick and Nike.

Rebecca Lieb: Exactly. Same adjacency issue, only with dogs, which frankly I think is way uglier than sex in Second Life. Who wants to go near that?

Eric Enge: Right. Nike cut Michael Vick in an instant. So, how are the old media companies reacting to everything that is going on in the online world?

Rebecca Lieb: I’m seeing traditional publishers take a long, hard second look at the internet and developing strategy accordingly. We’ve seen major re-launches of the New York Times, and of the Wall Street Journal. We’ve seen companies such as Conde Nast, that really ignored the Internet with a vengeance a few years ago, come online with a vengeance in the past couple of years. Nobody can ignore this anymore.

Old media people are finally admitting that this Internet thing is actually going to be big. That said I teach online publishing at NYU, and one of the first things I always tell my students, is no medium has ever replaced a medium that came before it. So, just as audio recordings didn’t kill radio, and just as video cassettes didn’t kill movie theatres, the Internet is not going to kill print, or TV, or the music industry. It is simply going to change the way that these entities operate in a solar system with a great big new star in it.

Eric Enge: Yes, that great big new star has an awful long way to go before it’s bigger than some of those older stars.

Rebecca Lieb: That’s why I got into this business, it’s new and it’s cool and you can make a certain contribution to forming it and shaping it and determining what it’s going to be, which is something I could never do in the newspaper industry.

Eric Enge: There is something more of a wild west type environment where it’s easier to define places, and to really make a mark.

Rebecca Lieb: Yes. A friend of mine who is a Pulitzer Award-winning journalist who writes for the Wall Street Journal says I should be doing what you are doing. That’s pretty cool.

Eric Enge: Another thing that you have written about is some of the privacy challenges that the industry faces. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Rebecca Lieb: The industry does face privacy challenges. The biggest threat obviously comes from the bad guys, the guys who are going to steal data, and the guys who are going to release data, like with the AOL technical problem that happened earlier this year, and that lady in Georgia was identified through theoretically non-personally identifiable data. There is a real lack of privacy standards and we’ve got the Feds looking at this right now. When the Feds look at things, it’s a cue that industry regulation might be a good idea before somebody regulates you for you. But, I think one of the other biggest and most un-discussed privacy concerns is consumer perception. Readers of this interview will all know what personally identifiable data is, but you can’t say things like that to the average consumer without a long-winded explanation. There are huge privacy concerns out there. For example, are you familiar with

Eric Enge: No.

Rebecca Lieb: It’s an Ajax genealogy chart site, so I thought it might be fun to send it to a bunch of people in my family and say let’s build a family tree. And, in less then a week we went from five people on our chart to over 300, which was very cool, and I found out about relatives I never knew I had. But at least three of my close relatives who are in my basic age range chastised me for having put their email address into this site, which of course I never would have done without examining the privacy policy first. And these are very web savvy people, who all work on the web all day long, although not as web professionals. It’s that perception; it’s that lack of trust that has to be overcome. So, it’s not just privacy that’s an issue, it’s the perception of privacy.

Eric Enge: Indeed. The threat of industry regulation by the government is a big issue too, you just don’t know what you are going to get.

Rebecca Lieb: What you are going to get is not going to be too great; I tend to look at Congress as a bunch of guys who don’t even type their own letters. Most of us spend a huge amount of time online in comparison. They are not a hugely web literate population, I mean look at this litany of laws that comes out of Utah and you thought each one stupider than the last regarding email and privacy. I don’t think it would be that bad from Congress, but it wouldn’t be too good.

Eric Enge: Right. Well, I think it’s never good when somebody who is trying to make decisions about something, but they are basically ignorant of the topic area.

Rebecca Lieb: That said, I think that what the search engines did this week with much shorter cookie expiration times, in striping of IP identifiers in search queries earlier rather than later is a little bit of showboating. In a day and age where bloggers talk about whether or not they can go a day without Google, what’s really the difference if your cookie expires in a year and a half or in 2039? Nobody can be off Google for that long.

Eric Enge: Right. With more and more integration of companies, Google has the FeedBurner data for example, and then there is the DoubleClick acquisition, they are getting more and more data.

Rebecca Lieb: Yeah. It’s almost like the financial companies, there is Equifax and Experian, who know exactly who is contributing data. The Internet space is becoming so consolidated that, I don’t think it will come down to two companies. But, why do you think the Feds are taking a look at the Google DoubleClick acquisition right now. Remember what happened to DoubleClick back in around 2000 and their privacy policies?

Eric Enge: There was a big firestorm then.

Eric Enge: Now we can cross-reference that data with all the search data.

Rebecca Lieb: I’d say watch for more behavioral targeting from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. None of them want to talk about it and it’s very easy to understand why, but I can’t believe that this isn’t going to happen. Can you?

Eric Enge: No, indeed.

Rebecca Lieb: Otherwise, I don’t understand why they are doing anything that they are doing.

Eric Enge: There is clearly an awful lot of money in understanding your customer better.

Rebecca Lieb: That’s the promise of interactive marketing and behavioral marketing. It’s not a bad thing, I have heard and said a million times that in an ideal world, I’d never see an ad for shaving cream and you would never see an ad for feminine hygiene products, right?

Eric Enge: Right.

Rebecca Lieb: Maybe the ads seem a little less intrusive and a little more relevant, and that’s good for everybody.

Eric Enge: Are we going to be mature enough to recognize that and get over it in terms of the privacy issues, provided that we can be comfortable about what the company is doing on the backend?

Rebecca Lieb: Well, I think we’ve always got to be diligent about our privacy. You don’t say: “I haven’t been robbed for a month, so I think I’m going to start leaving my door open”, that’s just common sense. Even if the Search Engines have their act together, there’s still going to be spam. I think I heard somebody from Microsoft say recently that spam isn’t going to go away — it’s like an infestation of cockroaches; you just try and maintain it at a reasonable level. There will always be privacy violations, so hopefully we can keep it at a manageable level so it will not cause undue hysteria and keep people away from this channel. And I don’t think people can be kept away from this channel anymore; do you?

Eric Enge: No, I don’t. That wraps it up for today. Great, Rebecca, Thanks!

Rebecca Lieb: Thank you too, Eric.

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