SEO / Jan Schweder 10. Juni 2009

Ex-Google Employee Hessam Lavi Talks About SEO

Recently Hessam Lavi, a former Team Lead in Google’s renowned Search Quality team, joined our team in Berlin. Hessam joined us as Business Development Manager and he will be working across construktiv’s various projects, namely trafficmaxx, Mister Wong, and other upcoming projects.  We thought it would be nice to hear from him first hand about his experiences at Google and his thoughts and visions on the Online Marketing industry.

Jan Schweder: Before we get started, please introduce yourself briefly. Who are you and where are you from?

Hessam Lavi

Hessam Lavi: I was born in Iran but I grew up in the small university town of Lund in Sweden where I lived for 13 years. Before moving to Berlin, I spent 3,5 years in Dublin working in Google’s Webspam team led by Matt Cutts where my main responsibilities centered around improving the quality of the results in Google’s Search index. In this position I was leading the efforts in fighting Webspam in several EMEA markets as well as communicating with webmasters on ways to make their websites more Google friendly.

At trafficmaxx, I will be mainly working on our strategy for providing the best service to our partners around their online marketing activities to ensure the best possible representation across the World Wide Web.

Jan: Great to have you in our team Hessam! Next question, what role does Search Engine Optimization play for companies?

Hessam: For most of us today, search engines are the starting point of our online activities; I’m pretty sure most of you visit Google several times a day to find everything from flight tickets, a review for a TV you have seen on sale or the opening hours of the nearest IKEA. This basically means that if a website is not found in the search engines, very few people will find their way to it. It is quite similar to setting up shop in a dark alley with no signage on the door – I know several shops like that and I wish they didn’t do that.

But to be honest, a serious investment in SEO is not necessary for every company and there is a great deal of free resources one can read up on to ensure a website is indexed in the major search engines. Despite the simplicity of implementing the basic search engine friendly guidelines many webmasters still ignore them completely by for instance designing their website fully in Flash. It really annoys me when I find the website of my favourite restaurant on the second page of Google’s search results – when doing a search for their name! I once actually sent an email to a restaurant to tell them about the one thing they could do to place themselves on the first position in Google – and I didn’t even get a free meal out of that.

But the web of today offers not only an ever growing and cost effective channel for business, but also a free and extremely powerful tool for market analysis. It is therefore of absolute importance for any serious player to ensure the right person is leading them through the ambiguities surrounding the Online Marketing area and to navigate them through the sweeping amount of information and data.

Jan: Have you perceived any changes in the field of SEO during the past couple of years?

Hessam: Looking at how the field of search engine optimization has evolved, I have seen a shift towards more white hat SEO simply because the black hat methods of the year 2007 do not work anymore. This is also because using such methods would harm your online reputation more than ever. The more serious SEO consultants have today moved away from the black hat techniques because it creates more problems than solutions, and getting a client’s site kicked out of Google doesn’t really reflect well on your company image. On the other hand, there has been a surge in the real shady black hat stuff such as hacking websites and Phishing.

In terms of black hat SEO, I have learned during my time in Google that there is really not much of a point trying to fool Google’s algorithms. What many people forget is that Search is Google’s bread and butter and poor search results mean less users, which translates to lower income from advertising and so on. You can therefore be assured that Google has the smartest people working on these issues to come up with solutions for spam on the web and to counter black hat SEO methods. In addition, Google has become much more open to their users in Europe and there are today several channels where you can get in contact with members of the Search Quality teams around the world to report spammy webpages or other shady techniques.

So all in all, some dodgy methods might work for you for a short amount of time, but rest assured that you will be stopped sooner or later and the sites you „experimented on“ will suddenly be found at the bottom of the search results; a place which can be very hard to get out of, not to mention the colossal loss of user traffic and sales. What I have also learned is that an optimal visibility in the search engines does not come overnight and it is something which has to be developed successively. There is no easy way to the top and whoever promises the opposite is a black hat.

Serious online marketers put the sustainable success of their clients first and structure their online marketing strategy with the long term success of their clients in mind. Many traditional SEO firms have also managed to step into new areas and they are in my opinion today acting more like traditional marketing and PR firms and are much more involved in the overall marketing strategy than just to take care of the company website. These areas include for instance Reputation Management and Online PR, but also Usability and Information Retrieval.

Jan: With your background in Google’s search quality team, how would you define valuable SEO practices?

Hessam: Well, there is really no one single way to make your site rank high in Google’s search results and optimal rankings come with hard work across all the available channels on the Internet. It is quite interesting to learn about how different people go about searching and accessing information as well as the variety of tools they use. This forces companies to widen their reach beyond their websites and beyond search engines.

The technical aspects of a search engine friendly web design make up the crucial foundation of a successful online presence. These factors are simply guidelines for increasing the findability of information on your site and the facilitation of analysis of this content by the reader – both humans and search engine robots. When it comes to creating a search engine friendly website my personal advice has always been „less is more“ based on the principles of Interaction Design. There are many ways to unintentionally block out important information on your website to users and search engines and our partners are often surprised how a few small mistakes can weaken the usability of their content and damage their rankings in search engines.

Another important aspect of online marketing is conversion. Without conversion, traffic is not worth much. This is why it’s important for us to analyse the traffic to our partners‘ websites in order to better understand what users are looking for. What we look for are for instance how visitors interact with the content, how they use the menu and which type of content they find most interesting. We also look for usability issues which might harm the conversion rate, such as a complicated navigation system or unclear shipping information. Our approach is that it is important to get the right sort of traffic which leads to conversions, instead of trying to rank for everything, all the time.

Therefore, unlike many of our competitors, we see our clients as partners and we offer them a variety of workshops which allow them to learn and incorporate the necessary changes to their online activities and to make sure they are working consistently within a search engine friendly framework. This includes everything from technical development, website design, copywriting, content creation, PR releases, blog posts, Social Media activities and so on and so forth.

What has become more important today is the area of Online Reputation which summarizes one’s image across the World Wide Web, i.e. not only in Google or other search engines but anywhere on the Web where people communicate with each other. More and more people today spend a great amount of time on various social networks like Facebook, StudiVZ or Twitter where they share thoughts and communicate with like minded people. It’s hence important for companies to learn about what is being said about them, both positive and negative, and to meet their users where they are. For this reason, we have developed a tool which enables our partners to have an extensive overview of how they are perceived online and we work with them to further improve this image or resolve any issues that may arise.

Do you have any questions to Hessam? Twitter us @trafficmaxx or post your question (in German or English) in the comments section and we will do our best to reply to them.