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May 2, 2008

Six Questions With Vanessa Fox

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It’s time for the last speaker interview before I head up to San Francisco to attend eMetrics. This time around, Vanessa Fox graciously agreed to let me put her in the hot seat and grill her on everything from common search engine optimization pitfalls, blogging, to what the heck she actually does these days.

Vanessa needs no introduction but in case you live under a rock, you can find her blogging at VanessaFoxNude.com, she used to work here, and she has now moved to Seattle where she acts as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Ignition Partners. Have no idea what that means? I didn’t either. On to the interview!

1. Okay, I’ve heard you explain what exactly you do as Entrepreneur of Residence at Ignition Partners at least three times but I still have no idea what it means. Can you help break it down for me? Maybe if you type slowly I’ll understand this time. (No promises.)

I started working with Ignition Partners because we had a mutual idea that we felt was worth exploring. Business is increasingly moving online. There are lots of things to think about when you’re operating online: Who are your customers and what’s their behavior on your site? How can you better understand them and connect with them for a strengthened long-term relationship? How should you build your site to get lots of qualified visitors from search? What about advertising and email marketing? I’ve found that all these things impact the other and they all are really about the customer, but companies look each of them in siloed ways. If you change your page for SEO, for instance, that will impact usability and conversion. If companies can look at these types of things holistically, they can make one set of changes to improve multiple areas at once, rather than make a change for one silo at the expense of another.

In addition, companies have all kinds of data about their customers — web analytics, keyword research, search volumes, purchase history, email stats… But there’s so much of it that it’s difficult to know what’s important and what’s noise. And there’s no easy way to tie it all together to get true picture of the customer and make strategic decisions.

Being an Entrepreneur in Residence with Ignition has enabled me to talk to companies, find out what their key needs and issues are, and work towards coming up with solutions. I’ve been spending lots of time doing that and from that I’ve started working on a new project, Nine By Blue, that I first mentioned when speaking at Web 2.0 Expo last week. The idea behind the name is that there’s all kinds of data out there, but it can be turned into something more.

I’m also working on a somewhat related project called Jane and Robot with Nathan Buggia. We talk to a lot of developers who are building web applications and want to make sure their infrastructure is search-engine friendly. There’s lots of SEO advice out there for marketers, but we want to provide a definitive resource for developers on the issues that matter most to them. We gave a talk at Web 2.0 Expo last week (check out the slides!) for developers and unveiled the site then, although look for the “real” launch soon. You’re getting a secret sneak peek now! Don’t tell anyone!

2. At eMetrics you’ll be speaking on the All Your Search Questions Answered panel with two of my favorite industry men – Avinash Kaushik and Mike Grehan. Here’s a search question I need answered: What are some common mistakes people make with site architecture and how can they keep from shooting themselves in the foot? Related to that, where do you stand on the whole PR sculpting/no follow internal links debate?
I’m really looking forward to being at eMetrics. I think it’ll be a really fun panel.

I see two mistakes fairly commonly:

  • Building the site and keeping search engines out: I see sites that do this accidentally all the time. There are fundamental building blocks for sites that also increase accessibility and usability, but if you don’t know about them, it’s easy to build a site all in Flash, or with huge blocks of images that have not ALT text, or with all the content in AJAX in a way that’s not crawlable. I tend to use my mobile phone browser as an easy way to spot this. I have seven pairs of Vans, so clearly I’m a fan, but if I’m out shopping and want to check out their latest shoes online and I go to vans.com, all I get is a blank screen (you can check this out by turning out JavaScript in your browser and loading the page).
  • Not understanding the customer: I see lots of sites without a clear call to action or without landing pages for each audience type or product. Related to this are pages that use lots of words that people would never search for. Doing keyword research isn’t just about search engine optimization, it’s also about understanding the language of your customer. You want the text on the page to resonate with them, let them know that they have reached the right place — that you understand their needs and can solve their problems. Also, not everyone is sure how to use web analytics data effectively. I was talking to someone yesterday who said their site got 1 million visitors a month. I asked what the bounce rate was, and they had no idea. It’s important to know if you’re getting qualified visitors, why they’re seeking out your site, and if they’re returning.

As for PR sculpting/no follow internal links, I think first of all that 99% of sites have lots of other more pressing issues to take care of. It’s like painting the molding in your house when your walls have fallen down and you have no windows. Spend your time on the fundamentals for the biggest impact. Spending lots of time on the minutia can provide diminishing returns that may not be worth the investment. I’ve never been a big fan of PR sculpting or using nofollow for this purpose. I like the use of nofollow to discourage comment spam, particularly now that so many sites allow user submissions. I think opening up your site to user contribution is awesome, but inviting spammers to submit all the links they want makes it a little less awesome. By using nofollow, those sites may at least be less attractive to spamming and might have to spend less time dealing with it.

I much prefer use of robots.txt for internal pages that you don’t want the search engine bots to spend time crawling. And as for PR sculpting, quality external links count so much more than internal links for ranking that I don’t know that sculpting is going to make that much difference in the scheme of things. It seems like a lot of effort for little pay off.

3. What’s the best way to rebrand/move to a new domain without losing your brand? Should we all just create [OurNameNude.com]?

This is definitely a tricky subject and people should not undertake it lightly! I definitely suggest testing it to make sure you’re implementing it correctly. For instance, if you move from mysite.com to mynewsite.com, you might first redirect mysite.com/nonimportantfolder to mynewsite.com/nonimportantfolder, wait a few days, and make sure all the old URLs in that folder are being indexed under the new domain. Definitely do a 301 redirect that does one-to-one redirecting. If you’re changing your brand name, remember that you probably get a lot of search visitors from people typing in the older name. If the new domain and new brand don’t have the old name, then you might lose your ranking for that old name and all those searchers won’t be able to find you anymore.

You might include text on the home page “Old name is now new name!” This won’t just be useful for search, but it will help your users who might otherwise be confused. I would also recommend not changing your layout and content at the same time. It is tempting to rebrand with a new domain and entirely different site, but if you do start to experience indexing problems, it will be difficult to pinpoint the cause. Is it because you implemented the 301 incorrectly or is it because you changed the text and the search engines no longer think the page is relevant for the terms it used to rank for?

Should everyone create theirnamenude.com? Well, if you’re looking to get a lot of porn searchers, then sure. :)

4. Speaking of VanessaFoxNude.com, you’ve done a great job transitioning from “corporate Google blogger” to “personal blogger”, do you have any advice to those of us, I mean those, who may be looking to do the same thing?

I think the biggest thing is deciding why you want to blog. Do you want to write about your life? Your views about current events? Build a community around a topic? Provide information about a particular subject? My blog has been sort of all over the place, so I don’t know that I have the best advice (or rather, I’m like a parent: “do as I say! not as I do!”). But now that I’ve had the blog a while, I’m getting a better sense of how it best fits into my life. As you know, blogging takes a lot of time. You not only need time to write, but time to be thoughtful about what you want to write about.

5. Is it nice being out of the spotlight that comes with being a Googler? While you’re still high profile and jet setting to conferences each week, the work you’re doing seems somewhat more behind the scenes. Is Vanessa Fox an attention whore* or is the quiet a nice change?

Where’s my attention?! Heh. Not really. I really enjoyed being in a position at Google where I could help people as well as get insight into what our users needed most, since that was invaluable in planning what to build and how to evolve the team. The addition of the webmaster trends analyst position, for instance (Jonathan Simon, Susan Moskwa, and John Mueller) came directly from talking to webmasters and understanding that we could best help them by providing not only product features, but also people who were dedicated to assessing issues.

With all the speaking and writing I’m doing, as well as the efforts with Nine By Blue and Jane and Robot, I feel I’m still in a place of being able to help people as well as learn a lot, which is just an ideal place for me to be in.

[*I want to state that this question was posed by Matt McGowan. HE called you an attention whore. Not me. I would never say such things about. Where you would read them Heh.]

6. You’re trapped on a plane for six hours with no laptop, TV, iPod or book in hand. Do you make idle conversation with the person next to you, succumb to the shakes and uncontrollable drooling, or cause a large enough scene that the pilot is forced to land the plane and reunite you with your wireless devices? Or rather, how long into the flight do you last before start throwing blunt objects at the flight attendants to get them to land the plane?

The real answer is that I would sleep. I travel so much that I tend to be immune to time zones and just sleep when I can get it. It’s gotten to the point that as soon as I sit down I almost instantly fall asleep no matter how hard I try not to. But assuming I stayed awake, I would likely try to track down some old fashioned paper and write. There’s not much I like more than writing.

Thanks Lisa for taking the time to ask me these questions and for being so patient with my answers!

Thanks so much for being a good sport, Vanessa, and giving our readers some exceptional answers! I’ll see you in San Francisco. ;)

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5 responses to “Six Questions With Vanessa Fox”

  1. Jody writes:

    Great interview! Thanks Lisa and Vanessa. Keep up the great work.

  2. Adam Lasnik writes:

    So happy (but not surprised) to see Vanessa still so articulately talking about accessibility and related big-picture issues! And hey, Lisa, fine interview :-)

  3. Jill writes:

    Good stuff! Especially like hearing Vanessa’s views on PageRank sculpting (even moreso because it’s inline with my own).

    Looking forward to hearing more from Vanessa when she speaks at our local SEMNE event in September!

  4. Mike Grehan writes:

    Hey yoo! Just wanted to prove the point I do read your stuff… And that I completely missed this or I wouldn’t have asked Vanessa the same question in that session… I’d have just pointed them here… And then asked the question again anyway :-) Great seeing you at the conference.

  5. SolarDave writes:

    That for asking the question about what she does now because I was confused too.

    I have a feeling will we see her switch jobs several more times before she sticks in anyone place for awhile.



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