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In-House SEO: An Interview With Gordon Magee of Drs. Foster and Smith




You may be asking yourself, who in the world are Drs. Foster and Smith (DFS)? Well, that may be unless you are a pet owner. You see, Drs. Foster and Smith currently ranks #115 on the Internet Retailer 500. That list includes names like Amazon, Staples, Apple, Netflix and about 495 others who top the online commerce world. If there is anything you need for your pet, it’s likely you can find it on the site.

DFS has reported in the past total revenues between online and catalog sales of $250M annually with $155M of that coming online. As part of our desire to bring you information about the world of search from many perspectives, I was afforded the pleasure of interviewing Gordon Magee who heads up the online efforts for this very large and successful site.

Gordon is what I call an SEO academic. He studies and looks for information that is beyond the realm of conventional wisdom. Considering the success they are having in SEO (even post Panda update) he may be on to something. Here’s may conversation with him.

Frank: How long have you been at this search marketing game?

Gordon: I have been with Drs. Foster and Smith for 8 years now. I started as an analyst then was asked to head the department a year later. Since we wear many hats as an inside team my job also entails PR which dovetails with social media and our overall media work which has included a national TV show and print production. We stay busy.

Frank: You were a catalog company that made the successful transition to a mix of print and online. What is the balance in that area?

Gordon: We currently run between 62 to 65% online and that is increasing. But catalogs are a huge driver of our online business however and integral to what we do online.

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Frank: What has been the biggest change in the SEO industry since you started?

Gordon: The most significant change is that the knowledge which was once the province of SEO firms is now commonplace. It’s not necessary to have an SEO firm in many cases. Of course, execution of that knowledge is the real key.

Frank: Do you have a percentage of your search budget that is dedicated to paid search? How much is it?

Gordon: We actually don’t think in terms of percentage of budget to create a mandatory spend number. There’s too much waste in that method. We simply think of it in terms of what we need to spend and then what the ROI will be as a result. We generally have a good idea of what we can expect in most areas.

Frank: How much do paid and organic efforts “play together” in your situation?

Gordon: Paid search allows you to be positioned well for words and phrases that are harder to optimize for either due to competition or due to the scale of all the things a company wants to rank for. When I read articles that couch things as “either/or” they make me wonder if the person writing them has ever had P&L responsibility or been part of a strategy team to help a company grow. There’s no such thing as needing one but not the other in my view just from a bottom-line simple analysis standpoint.

Additionally, having well optimized pages helps with an overall quality score that matters in Paid Search as a key factor in where an ad will show up and what you will pay for it. So there is no separating organic from paid and anyone who is thinking they can is making a big mistake. In other words, if a company thinks, “We’ll just do paid search and not worry about SEO” their pages will be poorly optimized resulting in poor relevance scores/quality scores, thus costing them both paid search money and positioning.

You can’t do paid search well without good SEO, and you most likely can’t be SEO’d for all search engine results in everything you want to be…so you need paid search too.

Frank: When you are looking at search do you intentionally consider Bing and Yahoo?

Gordon: In terms of optimization principles, zero. Bing and Yahoo are always playing catch up and tweaking their algorithm to try to do what Google has already done.

In the old days these other engines used algorithms that weren’t as good as Google’s. SALSA, HITS etc. There were and are dozens of iterations. Google factored in more variants and still does I’d say, and as such has always had better results. Until someone comes up with a better mousetrap, Google is going to be king. It will happen eventually, but it isn’t on the horizon yet.

Frank: What do you see as the future of organic search?

Gordon: More fragmentation and more complexity, but in a good sense. Competition will drive Google and Bing and Yahoo to keep getting better and better. We’ll all benefit from that. What will be different, and is different already, is what is found in the organic search results: e.g. images, video, news items, Facebook and Twitter posts from those on your contact list and more. It used to be that there were only simple search results listed. That world is gone forever.

Personalization from several years ago has changed things too. It matters whether you are logged in or not. And in some cases it doesn’t matter, depending on the cookies on your computer and whether you have deleted them or not. If you don’t delete your cookies, some personalization will happen without being logged in, it seems. But even that is several years old.

Frank: Do you use any agency help? How has your thinking changed over the years?

Gordon: We have in the past, but feel that, for the most part, we can develop the expertise in-house ourselves by hard work and critical thinking.

One way that we would consider using an agency is to do an audit on occasion to have an outside set of eyes look at the site. Of course, we would need to be on our toes because agencies survive through contracted clients so inviting an audit is inviting a sales attempt.

Honestly, we can obtain the knowledge through a variety of ways that are much cheaper and give us more control. Some of those are: Google itself, meaning publicly published information, annual conferences like SES, Internet Retailer, and eTail, Online news/blog articles related to search like Marketing Pilgrim, and books like “Google Page Rank and Beyond”.

Frank: Back to social. How is it influencing search?

Gordon: I think that is just beginning in some ways for example with Google’s +1 feature. Bing’s use of Facebook is something to keep an eye on as well.

Of course, blogs have been around for a long time and are being used as part of the measure of relevance for sites. Facebook and Twitter and location based services like Gowalla and Foursquare will play a role in some cases too, over time. But integrating them into algorithms will not be easy.

Let’s face it, everything online influences everything else but exactly how that happens is something that we will need to see evolve over time.

Frank: What SEO tools are you currently using to get these great results?

Gordon: While I know this may sound a bit contrarian, we aren’t currently using any tools. We have in the past and I personally believe there is great value in the right tools but we are at the point that we have to decide what is it that we can actually take action on due to resource allocation.

We feel that our basic understanding of the SEO world and knowing what is working makes us focus on what we have to do rather than be more concerned about what the competition is doing. We are very cautious about having too much information which is another contrarian position, I know.

Now that you have brought it up though, we may take a look around!

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Frank: What advice would you offer to those who are just getting started or are looking to seriously improve themselves in the SEO space?

Gordon: Maybe hire an agency for a year or two, so you start things right from the beginning. Then during that time, study your brains out.

One great book I read several years ago was “Google Page Rank and Beyond” by Dr. Carl Meyer and Dr. Amy Langville. It is a bit dated now that so much has changed, but if a person wants to learn how things work, I’d read that book and let it trigger thoughts on where to read further. And I’d emphasize the reading further part. For example, many people may not be aware that Sergei Brin’s and Larry Pages original paper from Stanford has been on the web for years. What a novel idea to read the actual philosophy behind Google rather than talk to someone who hasn’t read the paper and is only guessing or going on the word other others who also haven’t read the paper.

One of the other things I started digging on after reading that book was the AIRWEB conferences: Adversarial Information Retrieval on the WEB, now WICOW: International Workshop on Information Credibility on the Web. What you learn by reading these complex papers, is what you already knew: that the science of search engines is extraordinarily complicated, and you learn what NOT to do on the other hand. As a company that only wants to do things correctly, it is helpful to see behind the veil at what is viewed with a jaundiced eye by the brains behind search engines.

Frank: So the agency model is best suited for training to ultimately become an in-house effort?

Gordon: If you are a complete novice then yes because that can move your company’s success faster along while you acquire the knowledge and how that knowledge applies specifically to your vertical.

There is no substitute for knowing this yourself. Complete dependence on an agency for all your SEO needs is a mistake in my opinion.

Frank: Last question. What is the biggest mistake that you see the industry making as it relates to SEO and success? What is the biggest piece of ‘misinformation’ you see about SEO?

Gordon: That the “old” things don’t matter so much any more. It all matters…incrementally. Never forget that the Search Engines can only use what is on the page somewhere, either your page or someone else’s page, who either links to you or you link to them, or who “likes” you etc. Of course there are other factors, like click through rates etc. that help with quality score…but note that those click through rates come from a page too :-).

My point is that things like proper meta tags and meta descriptions matter. Not spammy ones, but proper ones. I don’t mean that they are some major factor. That’s not my point. My point is that everything matters. So do it all well. Then when Google or Bing changes what their algorithm is, you’ll always be properly positioned using good search engine recommended practices. Like most things in life, when you do the basics well you can survive the rest of it.

In our case, when Google’s Panda update happened in February an SEO company, who shall remain nameless, sent us a report, showing from their analysis the 10 companies that gained the most and the 10 that were hurt the most. We were in the top 10 who gained the most in their study. Now there are lots of studies, so I don’t mean that as the final measure of what happened, but it was a nice sized study and we were glad we were on the right side of that list, in that we have always tried to do things right with no shortcuts or odd techniques of any kind.
The basics matter and you have to do them well before any of the bells and whistles of SEO will make much noise.

We would like to thank Gordon because considering all he has to do, there isn’t a lot of extra time.

Here at Marketing Pilgrim we are interested in talking to in-house SEO’s and agency side influencers as well to give our readers insight as to what is happening in the world of SEO, paid search, social media and more.

If you have a suggestion for someone to interview let us know with an email to: editor AT marketingpilgrim DOT com.

  • http://www.seowales.org/ David

    Agreed with the synergistic approach to organic and paid and there’s a lot of research online that stipulates the benefits of pushing both strategies in tandem.

  • James Butler

    What a great article! No doubt Gordon knows his marketing stuff!