A conversation with Adam Lasnik, Google’s search evangelist

DMNews: Your title at Google is “search evangelist.” Can you explain what that means?

Adam Lasnik: I focus on Webmaster communications. The key components of that are helping to inform Webmasters, help them to understand what best practices are, what different events and aspects of Google mean to them, and to learn from Webmasters. I go out there to conferences and go online and get the feedback from them about what they would like to know about. Because I sit directly with engineers, I am able to directly take the feedback I get from Webmasters and turn it into actionable items, such as new tools or refined tools, or enhanced or refined documentation. My job is really a lot of communicating and a lot of listening. We consider Webmasters our partners and a really important part of what makes Google what it is.

DMNews: Since you are out talking to these folks, what are some trends you are seeing?

AL: One of the things I’ve been seeing that is really exciting is that search engine marketers and the Webmasters they work with are becoming much more involved in conversations online and offline.

If we look at the history of the Web, initially a lot of Webmasters and search engine marketers were focusing purely on broadcasting. They wanted to know how they could get what they have to say out to as many people as possible. But there is a whole lot of competition out there now. There are multiple sites that will help you find airline flights, and tons of sites that will help you find real estate. So how do you stand out in that massive fray?

So, what search engine marketers have been learning is that they really need to be not just speaking to people, but speaking with people that are on the Web. They understand that they need to be engaging with customers on those Web sites as well as reaching out to other sites around the Web such as social media sites. Participating in those conversations, answering questions and offering information has increased both awareness and interest in a lot of companies around the Web.

DMNews: Any other trends?

AL: Another trend that I wanted to mention is a focus on less deception and more of a user-centric focus. In the early days, sometimes we saw search engine marketers, particularly the less savvy ones, work with the Webmasters to try and, frankly, trick people and trick search engines. They would do things such as keyword stuffing, for instance, which occurs when a Web page is loaded with keywords in the content. This doesn’t serve your users, and if they see this, they might be put off or annoyed. So we’ve seen a transition from what I would frame as deceptive practices to a user-centric focus.

We do have, for instance, a couple of documents in our “Help Center” called “Google Webmaster Guidelines” and “Creating a Google-Friendly Site.”

The great things about these are that they are a reflection of user-friendly practices.

We’ve seen a greater attention to not only the user-centric focus but also to these Google guidelines that reflect what is involved in making pages that users like and users respect. When users appreciate these pages, they are more likely to come back, to visit the site, and share these pages with their friends on soil media sites like Digg and de.licio.us. All of that drives traffic and drives conversion.

DMNews: What tips can you offer SEO/SEM marketers?

AL: Here is a tip that I regularly offer to Webmasters — especially Webmasters that are also small business owners: Focus on your title tags and focus on your meta description tags. Those are both within the HTML of each document.

By doing this, two things are likely to happen. It helps Google to better understand what the page is about and it helps us to more effectively list the page in our search results.

By having titles that are specific, descriptive and also concise, you will not only oftentimes improve your listing within Google, but it will also encourage more people to click on it because they have an understanding of what your site is about.

Similarly, the meta description tags are often, although they are not always, used to help us create what is called the snippet. That’s the couple of lines of text underneath the title on the search results that gives a little more information about that page.

In general, we try to show a snippet that is surrounding what the exact search term the person searched for. But, when that is not always clear, we often fall back on that meta description. So making it in plain English, making it a few concise thoughtful descriptive phrases – that helps everyone.

DMNews: Any more tips for SEO/SEM marketers?

AL: The second piece of advice I often give to search engine marketers and Webmasters is to focus on brains over beauty and function over form. We often see sometimes people getting carried away with their Web designers to make a site beautiful.

But what we’ve seen historically is that users are looking to land on page, get information or do an action and then get out.

Although it’s nice to make it look somewhat pretty and not terribly stark – functionality and content always trumps. We encourage Webmasters to really focus on the usability and user interface.

Webmasters should understand how their users currently use their Web site. What do they look at? Where do they go? What do they access on that site?

We also offer a really outstanding free tool that has just been updated called Google Analytics. The function of this tool is to help Webmasters understand those key points: Who is coming to their site? What they are doing? What are they looking for? And, do they convert into sales?

Whether or not the SEMs or Webmasters want to use that tool from us or want to use a third party analysis tool, that’s fine. But you don’t want to go blind. You want to understand what your users are looking for and where they go. And by catering to your users, you are naturally going to be better in Google.

(This article first appeared in the June 2007 edition of the Essential Guide to Search Engine Marketing.)

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