Interview With Mike Grehan: Author of Search Engine Marketing Book

Oct 6, 2004 - 8:23 am 0 by
Filed Under SEO Interviews

To be honest, I feel I am one of the luckiest people in this industry, to have the opportunity to interview Mike Grehan. Everyone has several people that make an impact in one's life. Mr. Grehan did that for me with search engine marketing. His deep understanding of the workings of the search engines and his eloquent method of illustrating the information to us all is super natural. And without further ado, my interview with Mike Grehan, the author of "Search Engine Marketing Book: The essential best practice guide".

Barry: Hi Mike! I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions.

Mike: The fact the you're paying me a huge sum of money for it helps Barry.Barry: As long as you do not disclose the sum, that is fine. Mike, can we start off with a brief history on your background and how you became involved in the SEM industry?

Mike: Well, my parents were circus performers of Romanian gypsy stock. My father was a high flyer on the trapeze and my mother was, perhaps, the cutest bearded lady in the whole of Eastern Europe. They made a fine pair, with my father in that tight cotton suit with his cape flowing behind him, and my mother, all three foot of her, with that sexy beard flowing down the front of the tight little back number she used to titillate my Dad with.

I have some vivid memories of them from when I was very small. In particular thinking that the big lumpy bit in the front of Dad's cotton suit was probably something for my mother to put her foot on when she reached up to kiss him.

We weren't very well off at all and I remember one evening when we had Natasha, the female juggler, and her husband Boris, the wrestler, around for dinner. Such a lovely couple they were.

The bread was at the opposite end of the table, and forgetting my manners, I stood up and leaned right across for it. Natasha commented to my mother that she thought I needed some new trousers. "What's wrong with the ones he's wearing" mother said. "You didn't see what he just dragged through the mayonnaise when he leaned over the table just then" Natasha said. Well we did all laugh! And then avoided the mayonnaise for the rest of dinner.

After dinner, we'd have fun watching Boris and my Dad playfully wrestling naked in front of the fire. Boris was famous for some killer moves, but he'd usually go gentle with Dad. But one night it got completely out of hand. My father threw Boris to the floor a little on the heavy side and he went into a rage. He put my father in his classic twister move. Everyone in the circus knew you had to get out of the twister, before he pulled the double twister. Nobody had ever got out of that.

But too late, one quick shift and that was it, Dad was caught in the double twister. Mother was screaming for Boris to let him go "you'll kill him" she was shouting. When just then, there was a loud scream and Boris went flying across the room.

I rushed to my father and said Dad, "you did it, nobody has ever managed to get out of the double twister. How did you do it?" He said that he'd had a surge of inhuman strength.

He said, "Boris pulled me out of the twister and bent me into the double twister. I was losing consciousness and my back was breaking. But then I saw it... A great big willy hanging right in front of my face!"

"So I sank my teeth into it... And you have NO idea how much strength you can summon... when you bite your own willy!"

It was this supernatural feat of my father's that I witnessed, which convinced me that I could do the impossible in my life too. So that's when I decided that search engine optimization was for me. I'd send emails to hundreds of thousands of people and tell them that I... yes, I alone... could get them to number one in all of the 53,000 known search engines. And for the price of a McDonalds happy meal at that!

I would call myself... Powerful Traffic... or something similar, and wear a costume like Dad's (resplendent with lumpy bit) and leap from tall buildings shouting: "I checked your site and noticed you're not number one at Google... But I can help!"

And that Barry, is the true story of how I just seemed to fall naturally into this business.

Barry: That is probably one of the most interesting stories I have heard in a really long time. In fact, I never knew anyone who was in the circus business. OK, lets discuss search... You are very well known for your deep understanding of the actual ranking algorithms deployed by the search engines. Can you tell us a little bit about how you were able to get some of the information? I mean, you spoke with major players at the search engines - its rare for an SEO to be able to get any response, let alone the responses you received for some of your questions.

Mike: Many of the responses I received to my questions were unprintable actually Barry. But it's nice to know that, even in California, many people seem to know a little Anglo-Saxon still.

But honestly... The first edition of the book was the most difficult, yet it had less information. And that's because there was still a bit of the "them and us" between search engines and SEO's. However, most of what I was practicing and writing about then was on-page stuff, so it wasn't too difficult to figure out how to manipulate it a bit. And try and use my own basic explanations.

One of the guys I spoke to back then put me onto Gerard Salton's work. Salton was a genius and preeminent in information retrieval during his lifetime. I read some of his early stuff and had to force myself to try and understand it. And then, without the aid of a special costume, it all started to fall into place.

The vector space model, as a concept, was a stroke of genius. And because there was no other type of technologies or methods developed for search engines (as they had never existed during Salton's time) they simply applied, "classic Salton" as it was referred to by Brian Pinkerton from WebCrawler.

Salton himself covers a lot about citation analysis in his work. But what he applied "classically" was different to the way that concept and its spin-offs are applied to the web. For instance, in classic citation analysis an old scientific paper can't cite a newer paper. But electronically on the web, an old page can be updated to include a new reference.

Anyway, to go back to your original question, once you start to talk a similar language to the researchers and engineers, it's hard for them to resist answering: because they know the answers!

Having said that, it's very much concepts and principles I'm interested in mainly, not so much math and stats.

Barry: I have read many of your articles, I have heard you speak and I have read your book. The way you explain concepts such as linkage, the term vector theory, and other detailed concepts that are often deployed by the engines, truly amazed me. One such example is how you explained Teoma's "Subject-Specific Popularity" at one of your sessions at the SES conference. I believe, you asked people to raise their hands if they were wearing blue shirts. Then you asked those people to drop their hands if they were interested in (I forgot the example you used, so I will make it up) football. I don't want to get too much into how Teoma works in this interview, my point is, where do you come up with such great and easy to understand examples to educate the search engine community on the insides of the search algorithms?

Mike: Oh, the blue shirts and football analogy? Never heard of it. Are you sure it wasn't a comedian at one of those strangely exotic nightclubs you hang around in?

Okay, yes, I did use that analogy. I won't bore your readers with the full thing here, but I actually used that to help the sales people at a large SEM firm I was attached to at the time, to understand clustering and hubs and authorities. It seems to have worked because you're fluent in it now Barry.

You know, I mentioned earlier about being a little more concerned with concepts, principles and philosophical approaches to information retrieval. And when you can get your head around them, it's not too difficult to find a basic analogy to get the fundamentals across.

I've just finished writing a lengthy article about social network analysis and network theory generally. I've been talking to some leading physicists who are really interested in the ecology of the web. It's absolutely astounding what I've learned.

But because some of it so complex, I really have been wracking my brains on how to get it across in a manner for laymen. I have an incredible audience, many of whom just lap up the pure data. But there's also an element of the audience who write and say that there were bits they didn't understand and could I just simplify it a bit. So trying to find something in the middle is a little difficult.

Barry: Speaking about how you educate people, you are about to come out with the 3rd edition of "Search Engine Marketing Book: The essential best practice guide." As I said earlier, I read the 2nd edition and its just amazing how much ground you cover in the book. But what makes your book even more precious, is the fact that you get deep inside the "why do" of search engines versus the "how to". What made you take this approach?

Mike: I have a very curious nature. I get frustrated when people say "you have to do it this way" and then I say why? And they say "don't know, you just have to!"

So, most of the material I was reading online and other ebooks etc., were mainly written in that fashion. I just kept thinking, well anecdotal stuff abounds online and that's fine... But what's the real reason behind this stuff.

I started to realize that there is more than one way to skin a cat, in pure SEO terms. So instead of saying "do it my way" I much preferred to let the reader understand why it had to be done and let them figure the best way to do it, in many cases.

I think there is a lot of "how to" stuff in there to get you going if you're new to the discipline. But I rather hope, like the best books that I read, it prompts a little inspiration and desire to find out more and experiment more.

I guess another underlying reason is that, if you know why things have to be done, then when someone in a forum or elsewhere suggests doing something that quite clearly wouldn't work - well at least you're wise enough to know why.

Barry: Let's talk more about the 3rd edition. What can we find new in this edition? Of course there has been a ton of consolidation between many of the major search engines, as what was predicted in the 2nd edition. What can be found in this book that is new, exciting, and visionary?

Mike: New, exciting and visionary... Okay, in this edition, I've decided that in the end, everyone dies when the planet is invaded by a strange type of alien, which is a cross between a forum moderator and a chat show host who pesters you to a painful death if you don't answer their questions...

Only joking Barry... I think you're a fine specimen of a moderator and will probably be a prize catch for a beautiful lady moderator in the future. Just think how, between you, you'll be able to edit out all the bad things in life!

Seriously, I have to say that, I was so happy to get the last edition finished, I didn't actually read it myself. But when I went back to it to start updating chapters and adding new ones, I thought: yep, we're into phase three of search now.

The third edition will certainly give a little glimpse into the future of where information retrieval science is going. As a prelude to the book, I'm publishing an article, I mentioned it earlier, to introduce some "small world theory" and "power laws" as in those which apply to an evolving network with a 'fat-tailed' distribution which differ crucially from the random graph's studied by mathematicians with 'Poisson type' distribution.

I hope it proves to be a very informative piece, once again, to give a truer understanding to what linkage and clustering is all about, in as straight forward a manner as I can. Since physicists such as Alberto Lazlo Barabasi and Duncan Watts have added their own discoveries into search it's a very, very interesting place right now.

Barry: An interesting part of your 2nd edition was the interviews. I personally loved reading them all. If you can say, who was your most favorite person to interview in the 2nd edition and why? Maybe also the most enjoyable person to interview as well, if you can tell me without hurting anyone's feelings.

Mike: Now that really is a difficult one Barry. Everyone I've interviewed has been so kind to give me their time, so they're all great and I'm very grateful to anyone who lets me pester them.

I have to say, it was fascinating talking to Brian Pinkerton. He's a great guy and a great innovator too. It was Brian who developed the first "full text" retrieval search engine and applied the vector space model (I think that Michael Mauldin of Lycos may want to dispute that a little, but hey... )

Brian taught me a lot about classic information retrieval. Now, Andre Broder, who was Chief Scientist at Alta Vista at the time takes some beating too. I actually only published about half of the interview I did with him because it was a tad more advanced than anything else at that time. He's a very funny guy and enormously clever. I mean absolutely hugely clever. But he was able to simplify the characteristics of search, from the point of view of search engine so easily.

And then Craig Nevill-Manning, Chief Research Scientist with Google. That guy's a genius too. Paul Gardi from Jeeves really knows his stuff for a non scientist and he's about the nicest guy on the planet. And if you wanted the "extreme optimizers interview" then you couldn't get more detailed than the interview with Jon Glick from Yahoo! Check out his credentials. And again, such a lovely guy.

I have to stop here Barry or I'll have to give every one of them a mention. And they surely all deserve it.

Barry: Who can we expect to find in the interview section of the 3rd edition?

Mike: Well, realistically, everyone who's ass I just kissed answering the last question... erm... Barry Schwarz from SEW Forums... erm...

This is also a polite way of saying: I'm not telling you by the way...

Barry: I know your busy, so I'll try to wrap up very soon. But one question I have, that I am personally very eager to hear from you is...What SEO theories do you pounce on in the 3rd edition? Of course, I expect to read the book for the supporting evidence, but can you give us a preview of what to expect?

Mike: You know the themes thing hasn't gone away completely, so I want to clarify that a little more i.e. that a theme on a page or in a paragraph is a different concept to that of "themed web sites".

The sandbox thing you guys are kicking around at the moment gets a different approach from me. It's based more on some research I have regarding the "rich get richer" power law. This explains why a static ranking algorithm such as PageRank is so bad for new pages trying to get a rank following indexing and why it's probably bad for the ecology of the web as a whole.

It's not really a case of dismissing the sandbox theory, it's more a view from the evolvement of networks and the acceleration of the "rich get richer" law as far as linkage data is concerned. Strangely enough, search engine marketers are partly responsible for the problem as well.

There's some other stuff which I hope is as enlightening to the reader as it has been to me. The great thing about the third edition though is the quality of the reviewers. I've been so lucky to get some very bright guys in the industry to act as technical reviewers to make sure that I'm relatively accurate in my explanations.

Barry: Final question, I promise. I think you recently joined or started a new company. Can you tell us about the company and your role?

Mike: Okay, but promise you won't tell anyone else? It's a small traveling circus with some Romanian gypsy friends of my family...

Barry: Well Mike, thank you for your time. It was an honor and privilege. And I hope to see you at one of the upcoming search engine conferences.

Mike: Not if I see you first Barry!

Only joking. It'll be great to catch up with you again soon Barry. Cheers!


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