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Interview with Adam Lasnik of Google

Posted on Nov 6th, 2006
Written by Lee Odden
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    Spotlight on Search – Interview with Google’s Adam Lasnik

    Adam Lasnik
    One of the fun things about being involved with the search marketing industry is getting to meet really bright and interesting people. Whether they are long time SEO gurus, CEO’s of fast growing corporations or employees of the major search engines, this industry rarely disappoints with its variety of perspectives.

    With the majority of search market share, most webmasters pay a significant amount of attention to Google. Google has done an increasingly good job of interacting with the webmaster community through the efforts of Matt Cutts and Vanessa Fox as well as Adam Lasnik. After having the chance to talk to Adam, I thought he and his job sounded pretty interesting and he agreed to do a short interview.

    This interview clarifies Adam’s role with Google as well as some of the most common webmaster questions/issues, his thoughts on the common sense of site optimization (think about the user!), long but satisfying days at the Googleplex, the Google Webmaster Help Group, the increasingly important role of Google Base and his thoughts on SEO certification.

    Note: with the exception of one link to Matt Cutts’ blog, all links were added by me.

    Tell us about how you became a Google employee. What was involved with getting “recruited” by Matt Cutts?

    I’ve been a fan of Google for quite some time, even writing up a “how to Google” tips article in early 2000 for a former employer’s internal newsletter. Also, many of my friends have worked at Google since the early days, and I was impressed by what they shared about the corporate culture. Amazing amounts of trust, freedom, and goodwill.

    I was particularly intrigued by the idea of strengthening communications between Googlers and Google users, amongst groups of Googlers, and so on. As a happy coincidence, Matt and the Search Quality group had been increasingly interested in extending these sorts of conversations as well, and so you might say we sort of found each other.

    Matt’s detailed the situation a bit more here: “Better Conversations

    So there’s not much more for me to add. But about eight months later, I can say that it’s been a great fit and I’m really pleased things worked out the way they did.

    Please explain the webmaster liaison work you do. What sorts of questions annoy you the most? (besides that one) What have been some of the more rewarding interactions?

    I think there’s a misconception that my main role is “getting out there”‚Ķ meeting with Webmasters, giving answers, solving specific problems, and so on. While — as someone who was Webmastering even back in’95 — I do enjoy the external aspects of my job, I think the most powerful part of what I do is internal. I’d say about 20% of my job involves interacting with Webmasters, SEOs, geeks, and even non-geeks at conferences, online, and otherwise. The remaining 80% is where the talk is translated into action. I am blessed with colleagues who care deeply about search and also about Webmasters; some of them are pretty well-known in the Webmaster community (including Vanessa, and — of course — Matt). But countless others work behind the scenes‚Ķ the crawl folks, the Googlers working on indexing, and so on. I’m confident that I’m helping Webmasters most when I’m tackling both the urgent as well as important-but-long-term issues with my teammates, serving as both a Webmaster advocate and facilitator internally.

    As for what questions annoy me the most? There aren’t any specific ones that I find particularly frustrating. Rather, I do occasionally grow weary with two types of questions:

    1. Questions that are clearly answered in our much-improved Webmaster Central, via a quick search of our Webmaster Help group, or questions that would also be likely answered via use of our Webmaster Tools. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, IMHO, but lazy questions‚Ķ well, that’s a different story.
    2. Accusatory “questions.” I suppose I need to get some thicker skin, but it stings when people imply that we either don’t care or — worse — that a relationship between Webmasters and Google must inherently be adversarial. Every time I’ve spoken with Larry Page and Marissa Mayer they’ve made it unequivocally clear that being mindful of Webmaster concerns is something resonating not just in Search Quality, but from the very top of Google.

    And thankfully, most of my interactions — with Googlers and Webmasters — have been decidedly positive. I got some incredible insights when I visited my colleagues in Dublin, Ireland (our European headquarters) as well as various Webmasters / Google users throughout Europe, all of whom offered thoughtfully global perspectives on search. Closer to home, I’ve especially enjoyed chatting with Webmasters and IT folks from non-profit organizations; these are people who often lack the resources to delve into the world of SEO, can’t even afford a week to schmooze at a conference. It’s made me think about how we (Google and all of us passionate about search) can most scalably and responsibly spread knowledge, and broadly share best search and user-experience practices in this area.

    What are some of the most common issues that you’ve heard from Webmasters in terms of problems with ranking on Google? What are some of the most common solutions?

    The two most common concerns we hear are:

    • Hey, all or most of my pages aren’t in your index! And
    • My site’s not ranking as high as I’d like or for the keywords it should show up for.

    In the first case, the sites at issue tend to be relatively new, or have so few meaningful backlinks as to be practically invisible. In a few instances, the sites violate or have recently violated our Webmaster Guidelines. The solutions involve patience and/or responsible networking to garner at least a few good links. Or, when violations are an issue, then cleaning up the problem and filing a reinclusion request is the way to go.

    In the second case, ranking can quite often be improved via either making one’s site more accessible / user-friendly (clearer titles, cleaner navigation) or — in a broader sense — by making the site more interesting or useful or entertaining to make for a better user experience.

    Lastly, I think our FAQ on creating a Google-friendly site in particular can address many Webmaster concerns and questions both in the initial stages of making a site and also in troubleshooting.

    The last time we talked, you mentioned that Google Base will play a more active role with information supplied in search results. You also mentioned that the line between the various Google services is becoming more fluid. Can you elaborate on that?

    Sure. This is in line with our Google-wide push towards fewer products, more functionality and power per product. You’ve probably noticed that we took the search box off the Base page; that’s because we figure consumers would prefer doing one search instead of two. On the whole, we want to make it easier for folks to get information into Google and, of course, easier for users to find information with the least amount of effort. Another example of this is our Onebox, the “teaser” at the top of many search results pages that shows related images, Google Groups messages, and so on. Again, it’s about getting as much relevant information to the user in the most expedient and useful way.

    Can you describe some ideal applications of Google Base for web site owners? How about some that are not so obvious?

    I think Base is great for any individual or company that has a large amount of structured (and, perhaps often-changing) information that they’d like to share. Obvious (and currently present) data sets include real estate listings and recipes. I’d love to see some quirkier-but-still-useful applications, though. Maybe hiking trail information by city region, or broad sets of nutrition information of common foods‚Ķ? In the meantime, folks who want to get more familiar with Base can check out our Base quick facts and related info.

    Anyone who relies on search engines for their online marketing would love to spend time getting “inside” information from Google Engineers and those “in the know” about how Google ranks web pages and other media. Since that’s unlikely, outside of Engineer availability at the annual Google Dance, what resources would you recommend for webmasters in terms of understanding search engines as a marketing tool and for learning about specific tactics?

    I’m going to have to give the anti-answer to this one :). I think learning tactics, per se, is sort of self-defeating; I know *I* can’t keep up with all the nuances of our algorithms because various teams are always updating them. Furthermore, if a particular tactic is likely to annoy or raise eyebrows for you or your customers, it’s likely to be exactly the sort of thing that our engineers will add as a negative signal in our algorithms. Hence, in the end — as cliched as it might sound — it really IS best to think like a user.

    Along those lines‚Ķ do focus groups. I mean, even simple ones. Grab your dad. Your next door neighbor. Watch them navigate through your site, preferably on an older browser or slower computer, maybe even on dialup. It’s amazing (albeit sometimes painful) what you can learn by just watching, not judging. One of our key engineers pointedly debates features and defaults in our products based upon what frustrates her Mom, and while quantitative data drives decisions at the end of the day, these examples often really help shape the way we view search quality.

    So, okay, maybe these things fall under the heading of common sense, and so for a more “insider” view of how we think at the Plex, I’d recommend participating in our Webmaster Help Group. Sprinkled frequently throughout the many threads you’ll find some damn good insights from other Webmasters, along with input from me, Vanessa, and other Googlers. It’s our aim to help steer the community in the right directions; we can only feasibly participate in a small fraction of threads, but over time I’m confident that best practices will be emphasized and increasingly valuable information will shine through.

    Can you describe what a typical day is like for you working in the Googleplex?

    Wow, that’s a toughie. As we often joke, there’s rarely a “typical” day, certainly not a dull day here. I dutifully created a detailed project/to-do list months ago, and though I do find it important to keep my eyes on long term goals, I am amazed and often amused by how much crazy stuff comes up each day.

    But on the whole, I’d say a typical day consists of lots of internal collaboration (in person or via e-mail or internal Google docs), and also informal alpha testing of new products, visiting a large set of forums, blogs and other online publications, and preparing for or attending interviews or conferences.

    The collaboration is most noteworthy, IMHO, because it’s practically devoid of grandstanding, politicking, or buck-passing. Most positively, the level of empowerment here is pretty uniquely high, I believe, so when folks bring up an idea for improving something, they can often just go and do it themselves. Of course, that can also be a bit daunting sometimes, too :).

    What’s surprising to me, I think, is the change in my thinking about work/life delineations. I’m still pretty firmly clinging to my own blog as my personal space, so I don’t think you should expect to see Googlisms there in the near future. But timewise‚Ķ it’s not uncommon for me to leave for work on the Google shuttle at 8:15am and get home at 9pm or later. Previously, I’d have frowned upon that as “workaholism,” but given the diversity of tasks I tackle and the flexibilty to intersperse social / personal tasks with work projects, well, it just feels comfortable and natural now. Taking breaks midday to work out at the gym or have an extended lunch with friends or attend a lecture from a renowned economist‚Ķ I think this sort of fluidity and flexibility might be frowned upon elsewhere, but in the end it makes me happy and also more fit mentally and emotionally.

    You recently did a class in basic search engine optimization for Government sites. How did that go? Do you and/or Google plan on doing more classes for other groups?

    It was my first such experience — leading a lengthy session with thankfully lots of Q&A — and it was both rewarding and enlightening. Content- and format-wise, I think the surprisingly dichotomous group (estimated at 70% gov’t folks more new to SEO vs. 30% of more experienced for-profit SEO-types) presented challenges I hadn’t anticipated, but it’s good practice for the real world :). As for future projects of this sort the jury’s still out. My team and I definitely want to help and learn from as many groups of Webmasters as possible, but it’s tough to keep it scalable. Make the groups too large, and it’s like a performance, not a truly interactive session. Make the groups too small and numerous, and then I — or other folks on my team — end up spending too much time externally and not enough time getting things done on the inside. It’s a delicate balance, but something we’re thinking a lot about.

    Recently the DMA launched a Search Engine Marketing Certification program. SEMPO is launching it’s own search marketing education initiative for in-house marketers and of course, Google offers the Google AdWords Professional program. Do you think it makes sense to try and “certify” search marketers?

    While I understand the allure and value of that idea, I do think we’re shying away from directly certifying either individual SEOs or SEO organizations.

    The market moves so fast, so frequently, that there’s a significant danger of missing the mark‚Ķ failing to recognize an SEO company that’s begun better focusing on user experiences or spotting (and delisting) an SEO that’s sacrificed usability for dramatic “quick fixes.” Specifically, we’re concerned about the challenge of making sure that certified individuals or companies adhere to best practices on an ongoing basis. And — unlike with AdWords — there are no immediate quantitative measures that we or Webmasters can use to assess ROI or evaluate practices. AdWords is a more controlled and measurable environment.

    So I believe for now we’re preferring to play a greater role in the background‚Ķ helping individuals and organizations via Webmaster Tools as well as our documentation and our help group‚Ķ and hoping that Webmasters can use these resources to gauge the trustworthiness and knowledgability of firms they might want to do business with in the search space. But — as with everything in this industry — nothing’s set in stone.

    Thanks Adam!