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March 19, 2008

Afternoon Keynote: Jason Calacanis

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Take a deep breathe. You know this is going to be good. Jason Calacanis is giving the afternoon keynote at SES NY, which is an SEO conference. Do I even need to say anything? I’m just hoping no one gets shot. Or if they do, they don’t bleed on me.

[Jason just walked by and said I have to be nice to him in my recap. Why do people always ask me to be nice? Am I really that mean? I have such an innocent face.]

Kevin introduces Jason and asks everyone to keep it PG. Heh.

Jason starts by clearing the air. A few years ago he was here for SES San Jose talking about Weblogs Inc and someone asked him if he did SEO. He said they didn’t; they build sites and make good content and it ranks well. He says he called search engine optimization bullshit and then everyone in the audience gasped. That’s when he realized there was an SEO industry (hee). He thinks what’s changed is the definition of what is SEO, it’s becoming clearer.

Search engine optimization used to mean gaming your way to the top of the engines, because that’s what you heard from the cold callers. Since his fatal comment, Jason has gotten a big education about what search engine optimization really is from people like Bruce Clay (holla!), Michael Gray and Neil Patel. He knows SEO is about making sites that help people and having a good structure. That’s when Jason learned the difference between search engine optimization and blackhat SEO. He thinks blackhat SEO is BS and a waste of time. He likes building long term value. He thinks the whitehat SEO is really important. In some ways, he is an SEO. He’s a whitehat SEO. If SEO is defined as building a site that helps people, that’s what he is.

Hear that? Jason Calacanis is an SEO.

Mahalo was launched on May 30, 2007. The first question he got was, "isn’t this just DMOZ?" It does look a lot like Yahoo and DMOZ; it has that directory-like feel. Yahoo and DMOZ failed. You have to ask yourself: why did it fail? Why doesn’t it exist anymore? Yahoo Directory failed because they sold it out. DMOZ failed because it was neglected by its owner. But they were both amazing in their own time.

How is Mahalo going to Scale?

It will scale with a distributed work force. In June, they launched the Mahalo Greenhouse to let people work from home to create search results. They have 400 people doing it from home currently. It’s the largest distributed work force on the planet behind Wikipedia and (probably) About.com. They’re at 40,000 pages right now. It can scale. In theory, it shouldn’t. In theory, Wikipedia shouldn’t work, but it does.

How are you going to keep it up to date?

Having seen Delicious and StumbleUpon use site owners and people with a vested interest, he knows people will tell them when they make a mistake. That’s why they launched Mahalo Social, which is basically like Delicious. It dramatically lowers his cost of keeping the pages updated. They’re building a trust world.

The engines created the SEO industry so they didn’t have to talk to site owners. If you have a problem, talk to them. The SEOs are the intermediary. The Mahalo discussion boards are kind of the same thing. It allows people to have a discussion in a public forum about something they don’t like.

Jason talks about the Mahalo Toolbar/Mahalo Share and how it helps SMOs. He stumbles trying to figure out what SMO stands for and it’s actually kind of cute. See, Jason’s really not a jerk. He’s just like us, getting confused by oddball industry acronyms!

Where is all this going?

How we (re)search today:

We use machines, experts, our friends and the wisdom of crowds. He’s shows the audience how he’s using the social graph to connect users and information. That’s the future of search. It’s not just machines or the wisdom of the crowds. It’s all of those things plus the social graph. It’s creating semantic relationships between people and objects. The objects are the SERPs. They define states between people and objects. What is the state between you and a book? You could have read it, are wanting to read it, are reading it now. The new PageRrank is knowing if you can trust people through their behaviors. If you can, then you can let them contribute more to your site.

The new MyMahalo will make social graph features more prominent on the Mahalo search results. Page will show pictures of friends that have shown an interest in a specific topic. Reviews will be imported directly onto the page (with user permission). It’s giving users the chance to leverage all of their data into one spot.

One More Thing:

Not everyone wants to give up Google or Yahoo. If you’re doing a search on Google and you have the Mahalo toolbar, they’ll syndicate out some of their content so you can see it in your Google result. They don’t want you to give up your experience on Google.

Question & Answer

Can you define what you think an SEO does?

Jason: My perception has changed radically. The SEOs I’ve met are outsiders in the technology industry. You have this elite group (Digg, Yahoo, Microsoft) and then you have your SEOs and site owners. He’s found that the SEO folks are some of the smartest hustlers, get it done kind of people. (He means hustler in a good sense of the word.) Like Jay-Z (hee!). His mom was a nurse and his dad was a bartender (Jason’s, not Jay-Z’s). He worked his way up. He thinks SEOs are just like that. A lot of them are stuck in short term think. They want to make some money today, but they may be spinning their wheels a little bit. By the time you get a page ranked and you make 10K off affiliate links in a weekend, you basically expended all this energy and you maybe could have built the next Engadget. He thinks maybe they’re more into the gaming then they are of creating something of quality. SEOs are really intelligent people. The blackhats are polluting the Web and that makes it bad for all of us. Then consumers don’t trust the Internet.

Kevin: My experience with the blackhats is different. I tend to try not to piss them off. There’s an element there of let’s think a little bit more altruistically. You gotta take it in order to get it, but maybe we could contribute a little bit more.

Jason: Just because you can take the number one spot doesn’t mean you should do it or that it’s right.

You tend to ask for forgiveness rather than permission and I was caught by an example where the Mahalo listings were supplanting paid listings (via the Mahalo Toolbar).

Jason: When the Web page reaches the person’s desktop, it’s theirs to do what they please with. If people want to put up ad blockers, that’s their right to do it. If people want to put Mahalo on their page, I’m okay with that. If Google says they have a problem with that, we’ll change it. He doesn’t have a problem with people remixing in the privacy of their own home. He doesn’t think Google will complain.

Is this your model now: The more people get upset at you, the more links you get to your site?
Jason: Are we talking about linkbaiting? What is that?

Kevin: You say something obnoxious and 500 people link to you and it’s basically just a small group of people who are big fans of themselves. (Kevin, 1; Linkbaiters, 0)

Jason: You can only take linkbaiting so far. I like to have a good time but even I know when to call it a day. I don’t want to be at war with the search engine optimization industry. He’s more than willing to evolve the discussions. You can link bait a couple of times until people figure out you’re just schmuck. You get the reputation you deserve over time. You just need to be authentic and real. Don’t make linkbaiting your strategy. He’s turned it on his head. He’s made it affection-baiting. You have to say nice things about him in order to get him to link to them. People should be nice to people.

If you were an online marketer, how would you promote your content?

Jason: The best way to market is to have a great product. Make products that speak for themselves. Then you have to authentically insert yourself into conversations. If you want to engage someone, you write a comment on their blog about something that has nothing to do with you. If people add Jason on Twitter, he tries to go to their site, checks it out and then sends that person a message. Products without human beings behind them will never do as well as companies without them. People don’t want products with no personality behind them. Make yourself available.

Is there a risk for being overexposed?

Jason says he’s the first to admit that he’s overexposed. He has his cell phone number on his presentation slides. A stalker showed up last week at the office.

Kevin says yeah, keep leaving your cell number on your slides. Hee!

What about the long tail? Most searches have never been seen before. What about that?

Jason doesn’t believe that one solution is going to solve the search problem. He thinks it’s going to be a blend of techniques. If you’re looking for the pizza place around the corner or the girl you staked in college, Google is the way to go. But if you’re looking for info on Paris, that’s where human editing comes in handy. Sometimes you need a hybrid and there are those too. The person who will win big and create the next Google is the person who finds out how to blend these different disciples to create a single product. Users do not care how pages are built. They just care if the result is good.

[Jason breaks into a strong NY accent that is...well, it's horrible considering he's actually from NY. It's like movie gangster.]

How do you categorize the traffic relationship you have with the other search sites?

Jason thinks that there are going to be a series of services that are dependant on search engines and some portion of them will be able to convert that traffic into direct traffic. Right now they get a majority of their traffic for search engines. Mahalo is a content company. They’re like Wikipedia or About.com. If they do good original content and they rank us, great. If not, we’re in it for the long term.

Can you explain why you chose not to implement canonical redirect?

He wanted to have URLs that you could type mahalo.com/keyboard. It’s easier for people to remember. It’s a personal preference.

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One response to “Afternoon Keynote: Jason Calacanis”

  1. Jason McElweenie writes:

    Lisa

    Thanks for blogging this!



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