Interview with the Englishman in New York, SEW’s Jonathan Allen — Part 1

If you’re at all familiar with SEO and search, then you must be familiar with Jonathan Allen. The self-described “Englishman in New York” heads up Incisive Media’s Search Engine Watch (SEW), having taken its helm as director in December of 2009.

As its new director, Jonathan was charged with transforming Search Engine Watch into a “vibrant, collaborative community” of search and tech marketing professionals. This he accomplished, along with a new voice and website design for SEW, a year ago.

On this one-year anniversary of SEW’s revision and new design, we’re honored that this philosopher, lover of literature, and distinguished search expert has agreed to so generously share with us the intimate details of his story, including how he came to be head of Search Engine Watch, as well as his “manifesto” on the search industry as it is today.

In this first of a 2-part series, Jonathan talks about his background and how he came to be the director of Search Engine Watch.

Would you share a bit about your background and how you came to be a search marketer?

I’ve been doing online marketing ever since I graduated the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2001. I didn’t intend to get into this field and saw myself as more of an academic with a particular love for philosophy and literature, despite always having the sense that vocationally speaking, they were completely pointless degrees. That didn’t matter too much to me at the time (as I studied that stuff for the love of it), but I anticipated that my career would be a bit of a non-starter and that there would always be a tension between my professional life and personal hobbies.

However, my first job out of UEA was working for a web design company that was creating an online 2001 holiday gift catalogue. My job was to search the web all day and find shops selling “cool gifts” that might want to advertise in our catalogue. The plan was that when the catalogue was ready to go live, a big PR push through magazines and offline media would drive visitors to the website where they would buy online. It was going to be ‘revolutionary’.

Unsurprisingly, the PR campaign and magazine push was a complete failure – and 10+ years later, it is still very difficult to use offline media to drive visitors to online pages. So, we needed a second strategy to drive awareness and traffic. My boss came over one day and dropped a printed-out PDF on my desk and said, “You are searching the internet all day, why don’t you work out how to get us to the top of the search engines?”

The PDF was a guide to writing meta tags and how search engines index keywords. Reading through it, it became apparent to me that a search engine is really just a giant question and answer machine using data crowd-sourced from web content.

Ultimately, what that meant to me was that just like philosophy, users had to ask the right questions to get the right answers, and just like literature, the right words and phrases had to be used to steer the reader into asking the right questions.

Getting hooked on SEO

Soon, I was hooked on SEO and became obsessed with the question, “What is the real intention behind this search query?” that is to say, what are users really looking for when they enter keywords into a search box? Most importantly, what are their information needs? So, I’m lucky to say that in the end I have married my hobbies with my profession.

Soon afterwards, I set up my own consultancy but that was more like a lifestyle business rather than a money spinner. It kept me in the black financially doing things I found interesting rather than “working for the man.” Eventually this wasn’t sustainable so I tried working at an agency but hated working for someone else. So I tried my hand at startups, teaming up with some good friends from UEA to build Cohack, an analytics platform for AdWords (pre-Google Analytics) and also Moblog, a mobile blogging social network for camera phone users (pre-Twitter/Twitpic).

Both enjoyed their share of successes, but ultimately we were all “too green” to make them into viable businesses. Nonetheless, working for yourself allows you to make some big mistakes and learn from them, and the risks we took then have paid off in terms of experience and confidence ever since.

I met a lot of my personal “influencers” during this period, such as Mike Butcher (European Editor of TechCrunch), Alfie Dennen (Creative Technologist, Bus-Tops), Ben Godfrey (Head of Product Delivery at Wonga), Mat Brown, Rob Chant, and Vincent Camara – all of whom have shaped my thinking about “online” in fundamental ways and probably don’t really know it. Principally, they instilled in me a practical appreciation for online communities.

So how did you come to be the Director of Search Engine Watch?

In 2006 I joined Incisive Media in the UK as a search marketing specialist to work on their job boards. Never looked back. Incisive is a company full of smart people, and senior management is composed of generous listeners who are quick to back ‘talent’ and take their fair share of risks.

Back then I was lucky to have two amazing mentors in Sophie Chesters (now, Head of Marketing at Google Analytics) and John Barnes (Managing Director of Digital & Tech at Incisive Media and Chairman of AOP, UK) who backed my strategies for better or worse, and helped me do “crazy cool stuff” under their command. They kind of opened the doors for me to pursue unofficial projects which, in a roundabout way, eventually led me to join SEW.

Although Incisive already owned SEW, I had little connection with the SEW team at the time. John sent me to SES (Search Engine Strategies) London (2009) to brush up on my skills, and I was working on an unofficial internal project with Vincent Camara from at the time. We were doing interviews with tech people for a new TV channel we were creating for another Incisive brand, Knowing that there would be a lot of important tech geeks at SES London, I took a camera to shoot interviews.

“50 SEOs, 1 Question”

However, Vincent wanted to try out a completely different approach to B2B video interviews and had always been knocking around this brilliant idea to do a parody of “50 People, 1 Question.” SES London seemed like the perfect place to reach 50 outgoing business people. It sounded fun but I didn’t know what question to ask until I spoke to my friend at the BBC who suggested I ask, “what should we do with the Black Hats?”

Thus 50 SEOs, 1 Question was born:

I conducted the video interviews and shot the 50 SEOs video in the same day. One of the interviews I did was with Mike Grehan (the last gent on the video), who sort of grudgingly accepted to do a separate interview after ceaseless pestering from me. In the bar, at the end of the day, he came over and told me that it was the best interview on SEO he had ever given and gave me his card in case I was ever looking for a job.

I was thrilled to hear it, but honestly, I just thought he had had a few too many glasses of sauvignon blanc… I never suspected that coincidence would lead us to work together within the year.

With the help of another good friend, Joel Craigs (now, Technical Director at The OMC), the 50 SEOs video came out a few months later and the community response was awesome! In particular, Matt McGowan, who had just been made Managing Director of Incisive Media‘s Americas and Interactive Marketing, absolutely loved it.

Six months later, Matt asked Mike Grehan to join Incisive Media to head up the entire content strategy for SES, ClickZ and SEW. Matt heard that I was looking for a career change and keen to work abroad, so John Barnes suggested I go for a job opening at SEW in the NYC office. The coolest part of it all was Mike dispensed with the routine job interview and simply asked, how would you like to move to NYC and “help SEW get its Mojo back?”

I was like, uh, let me think about that… YES.

What I learned from the whole project and the outcome is that the role of content in SEO is to build relationships rather than produce it for it’s own sake. I’m indebted to SEO Chicks’ Judith Lewis and Lisa Myers for their encouragement during shooting, as there were times when I wanted to give up. Also Bas Van Den Beld (State of Search) and Kevin Gibbons (SEOptimise) too, for being the first blogs to post the video online.

It’s been a year now since you’ve redesigned Search Engine Watch: how has that played out?

Although we were eager to re-launch SEW sooner rather than later, Associate Editor Danny Goodwin and I wanted to “cut our teeth” working together as an editorial team par excellence and win readers based on content and not just a glossy design.

We were also dealing with how to differentiate ourselves in the market and, with help from Frank Watson (who had been with the brand for longer than both of us put together), and a lot of trial and error, rediscover SEW’s ‘voice’. In the end we decided that we would be the east coast brand for search marketers.

We started redesigning Search Engine Watch in early 2010 with the blessing of Mike, Matt and John to try something completely different – and depart from the traditional site design concepts of Incisive Media. I had been following Ultra Knowledge for three years and their unique approach to publishing chimed with my intentions for the site – namely to put a search engine at the heart of the platform.

For the Love of New York City: Rebranding SEW

For about a year we experimented with a lot of different concepts on a staging server but formal plans didn’t really come together until the very end of 2010. It wasn’t until another old friend, Neil Tweddle, came to visit me in November and fell in love with New York City, that the visual concept of a re-branded SEW materialized.

Neil had just quit his ‘day job’ to start his own design boutique and in light of his obvious enthusiasm for the city, I asked him if it was possible to design a brand identity that screamed “New York City” – without resorting to the compulsory device of a skyscraper/empire state building.

We hit upon the subway theme as it was the perfect expression of not only where the brand is located, but also what the new SEW would be all about – complex, overlapping topics tackled by our writers and distilled into simple-to-use guides.

Fantastic feedback, killer core team & a supportive community

The redesign has been a hit with readers – within 6 months site traffic had grown by 80% (YOY pageviews) and in fact broken the record on every success metric for the site (since our records began). I’m pleased to say that a year later, our monthly stats for 2012 are on average 47% higher than 2011.

It’s obviously a harder challenge to grow as significantly purely on content, but that has been our focus for 2012.

Danny Goodwin’s editorial focus has been the mastermind behind this year’s sustained growth, but also the relatively recent addition of Miranda Miller as SEW’s official news correspondent has had a huge impact in terms of keeping our coverage fresh. Thom Craver has also been a massive support over the last two years and is now our resident MC for all SEW in-person events – he will be hosting the new eliminator quiz at SES Toronto next week – it’s gonna kick ass!

That’s the core team working daily on SEW, but we’re also privileged to have an extended family of contributors who are also really walking the walk and talking the talk every day. They are all influencing the direction of the brand internally and down tools at a moments notice to offer insights and new perspectives.

And from the sidelines, communities like the SEO Dojo often help us to find our “sea-legs” on difficult topics such as the fall-out from an algorithm update – a bit like the The Lone Gunmen from the X-files.

The goal for SEW going forward is to keep bringing the buy-side and sell-sides of the community together. Our role is to educate buyers as to what to expect and to give sellers the tools to educate their customers and train up their staff as quickly as possible. But our focus shall remain on steering practitioners into genius marketing initiatives that make use of all platforms – not just search, not just social, and not just video.

I want our readers to combine every online platform, tool, strategy and tactic under the sun – literally stitch the web together to make it work for their campaigns.

Be sure to check back on Tuesday, June 12th, for part 2 of this interview with Jonathan Allen. He’ll be offering his own “manifesto” on the state of search marketing, Google updates, and much more then!


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  1. […] Today we make good on our promise and post part 2 of our interview with SEW’s Jonathan Allen. […]

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