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“2013 Will Be the Year of the SEO”: An Interview with Nathan Safran


Today we are excited and honored to feature this interview with Nathan Safran, the Director of Research at Conductor, Inc.

Here, Nathan shares the results of Conductor’s latest research, predicting that “2013 will be the year of the SEO” (conducted in concert with Search Engine Watch’s Jonathan Allen), as well as his take on the SEO/search scene as a whole.

So in conjunction with Search Engine Watch’s Jonathan Allen, your research via Conductor indicates that 2013 will be the year of the SEO. What would you say are the most significant findings of your study supporting that prediction?

The way we approached the study is to draw an analog from how economists measure the economy. It’s a large and complicated entity and economists use a variety of ‘economic indicators’ such as housing starts, interest rates, money supply and more, which, taken together, give them a holistic view of the state of the entity.  These indicators should, in theory, give us a view of both the current state of the economy, and at least directionally, an idea of where we can expect to see it head going forward.

The SEO industry can itself be a large and complicated entity with many factors impacting our success or failure in the SERPs. We applied similar thinking to measuring the state of SEO by identifying a variety of ‘economic indicators’ that, taken together, could give us a holistic measure of the state of SEO, today, and directionally, going forward.

Our ‘economic indicators’ included things like the headcount organizations are allocating to SEO, SEO budget allocation, where in the organization search marketers are positioned, how familiar executives now are with search metrics, and more.

We surveyed 616 Marketers on Search Engine Watch in August 2012, and our sample ended up being a good mix of larger and smaller companies, and we heard from a mix of in-house SEO professionals, agency practitioners and consultants.

Overall, the research findings showed that across every ‘economic indicator’ we looked at, SEO is maturing in the organization.  That is, marketers are allocating increased budget, and headcount to SEO, they are utilizing advanced technology more, and natural search metrics have permeated the organization and are influencing business strategy more than ever before.

One of the most interesting findings to come out of the research was that the second most common place in the organization for Search is now in its own department.

As SEO has matured as a discipline and as organizations are recognizing the significance of search as a sales and marketing channel they are increasingly placing search in its own department.  Arguably, this is one of the most significant ‘economic indicators’ in the maturation of search in the organization.

Here are some key findings from the study:

  • The second most common place (16%) for search in the organization is now in its own department

  • 6 out of 10 organizations expect to increase SEO headcount in the coming year

  • 63% of executive teams are more familiar with SEO metrics than 12 months ago

  • 65% of respondents say natural search is influencing revenue strategy more than 12 months ago

Although there are certainly still challenges for SEO professionals, taken together we think the research spells out a very exciting time for SEO in the coming year!

Jonathan Allen, the director of Search Engine Watch and my partner in this study, also wrote up a post about the key findings via SEOs Expect ROI, Headcounts & Influence to Increase in 2013 at Conductor #C3NY (at SEW).

As Director of Research for Conductor, you have first-hand knowledge of – and insight into – the SEO/search industry. What would you say are the most influential factors defining the industry now?

I’d summarize it as ‘the industry is growing up’. The industry is coming from a place where the search marketer was the tech guy/gal in the basement tweaking meta tags, and now we see search in its own department in the organization, with increased budget and headcount.

From our perspective in enterprise SEO at Conductor, we see this in a number of ways where, now, companies are sending us RFP’s for an enterprise SEO platform, the conversations with marketers are changing where executives are now well-versed with the opportunities in natural search and search metrics are increasingly being utilized across the organization.

Another way the industry is ‘growing up’ is many of the old tactics that used to work no longer do or have had their efficacy reduced as Google increasingly focuses on quality and eliminating spam.

Part of this is about them cleaning up the search results, but part of it is about deterrence as many who might have considered engaging in gray tactics may be increasingly reluctant to do so as the threat of a major penalty looms.

Finally, a third way this is happening is that the SERPs themselves are evolving as digital assets, social, and local results are increasingly found in the search results.

All told I see search as an industry that is increasingly growing up and evolving into a discipline where the tools, people and publications are increasingly evolving and becoming more sophisticated.

Google’s updates have been rolling out for some time now and creating a lot of industry buzz with each new wave. What is your take on Google’s quest for quality w/Panda (and Penguin)?

I think there’s a lot of cynical stuff out there as to Google’s motives with the changes, and while I don’t want to imply their motives for everything they do are 100% altruistic, I do think that the moves towards quality in the search results have both been necessary and in many ways good for the industry.

There’s a sink or swim element that has emerged, where brands have been pushed toward creating quality content, following best practices in on-page optimization and taking a long-term view of their search marketing efforts that did not exist even a few short years ago.

If this leads to more relevant results in the search pages (and I think it has although there’s still definitely room for improvement) then ultimately that’s a good thing.

We’ve seen a bunch of Conductor’s research covered in some of the major industry publications over the last 12-18 months. To what do you attribute some of the success you have had in putting SEO related content out there?

Although my handsome mug  is featured on our columns on Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land, the Conductor blog, and the studies we publish, I have a fantastic team at Conductor –Jen Robustelli and Billy Lam–without whom none of it would be possible.  We work together on pretty much everything we do from idea development through post production to social media promotion in order to publish our content.

And, Conductor’s senior leadership deserves a great deal of credit for any success we have had.  When CEO Seth Besmertnik and VP, Marketing and Product Seth Dotterer first brought me over from Forrester Research more than three years ago, in doing so, they recognized that there was a place in the SEO industry to publish unique and quality research that everyone in the industry could benefit from.  It is to their credit and ongoing commitment that we’ve been able to achieve some success.

Although many are (justifiably) skeptical about bias from research coming from an industry player, to their credit, from day one, they created a separation between church and state that persists to this day and gave me license (and resources) to create unbiased research and thought leadership.

Read the full Success Works article here