Get the Inside Scoop from Senior Product Manager Duane Forrester
Mike Grehan: So, here’s a great place to start. Give us bit of background, Duane, you know, how you came into the industry and how you ended up at Bing.
Duane Forrester: So, I don’t know, I’ve been kicking around now for a little over 15 years I guess, publicly. It kind of started back when I used to work at Caesars Palace in Canada with their casinos, and I was in marketing and PR with them. When the opportunity came to move to a new city, my wife and I took that and I landed a job at an online publishing company. Their focus was on sports betting. This was all back in Canada and these things were legal. I ended up taking over a lot of the marketing functions for them. Along the way, the beginning of SEO was really starting to take off. These are the early days of pay-per-click, when it as still a penny a click. We leave our credit card open and go away for the weekend and come back and, you know, you’d have 100,000 clicks and you’d have two million dollars in revenue over the weekend and it cost you about $1,000.
Mike Grehan: Wow, those were the days. Bring them back please.
Duane Forrester: Epic was easy and conversions were simple. I progressed through all of that, built affiliate program, built email programs. Then I ended up writing a book, my first book. During that time as I was writing the book, I wasn’t really thinking a lot about it beyond, “Hey it’s a book project, this is pretty cool.” Put it out there, a few months after that someone at Microsoft saw it and gave me a call and said, “We’ve got a position open here if you would be interested in it.” Then things took a very rapid turn at that point, as you get involved with companies like Microsoft and they make a decision that they actually want you. Working with MSN to begin with, but also at the time Live Search and helping those folks out, and representing them. Then eventually just moving over wholesale to Bing to take over Webmaster tools and launch the new tools in 2012. And here we are today continuing that. I’m now focused in other areas as well, working in areas with developers and APIs and all of those kinds of things or businesses.
Mike Grehan: It’s interesting, Duane, I was going to say, tell us little bit about Bing, but just before we get there, you mentioned MSN and Live Search. Microsoft has been in search for a while. They were a little bit late to the game but they have been in search for a while. What’s the big difference between those earlier iterations and what Bing is now?
Duane Forrester: I think probably the biggest iteration, and this is fairly obvious, it kind of comes down to algorithm. Early on there were services provided that filled in that search provision, task area if you will, and today you see a very different set of circumstances. Things have progressed, I think, in a logical fashion following searchers and what they’re demanding from an engine. Mobile is much more impressive and much more important today. It is an area where you have to have a focus. We have to have the focus because the searcher is starting there, the search engine has to follow that. That’s why you see some of these guidelines that are being released, Google literally telling people mobile compliance on this date that matters. It’s not being done because there’s a forcing function here, other than that’s what consumers are moving to. Those stats are available for everyone.
Big differentiators for us: task completion, depth, quality of content, the visual aspect to search, those things are probably the biggest steps forward from where we originated from and what you see today. Now, if you expand you start seeing things like Cortana being a layer that’s able to actually initiate the response for you; to go out and get that answer and bring it back to you. Now we’re actually moving into that area of, “Hey, did you actually need ten thousand answers for this, or did you just need the one answer for this?” That’s where we’re at today in the world of search. We’re starting to see the budding confidence of a search engine being able to say, “I’m pretty sure that when you asked for X, you only need one answer, and this is the correct answer for you.”
Mike Grehan: It’s funny, I remember talking to somebody about that a number of years ago. I was actually talking to a Microsoft researcher and he had said to me that very same thing. “What if you didn’t get ten blue links, what if I just gave you what you wanted.” I mentioned that to a few people and they go, “Well, what about choice?” I’m trying to explain to them, “That’s the reason they give you that answer, it is your choice.”
Duane Forrester: Yeah, exactly. There’s a balance point there, and you strike on a very important point here, Mike. There’s a balance point, not everyone is going to be, even when you give them the answer that they want, not everyone can be satisfied with that. Some people will look at that and say, “What about things I’m not aware of. What about things I don’t know about that maybe I should know about?” There’s this balance that happens, where you’re kind of looking at it and saying, “Wow.”
This is where a lot of people start to … I think this is an erroneous thing, but a lot of people like to toss out the, “Oh, this is getting creepy now.” It’s like, it’s not getting creepy, you’ve filled in a profile, you told us what you like, you’ve given us your search history, all of the information is there. What we’re trying to do is take away all the chaff and leave you the wheat. If you come in and tell me that you want stats on the 2015 Ford Mustang GT 5 speed convertible, you’ve been really clear about what you want, so there is only one answer for that.
Mike Grehan: Exactly.
Duane Forrester: Would you rather me throw a bunch of random things in there as well? We don’t think so. But hey, there’s always going to be a few people that will say, “Hold on a second, Tesla is releasing a new convertible, and I’d like to know about that one too.” It’s like, okay, get that, but we’re working with what we have here.
Mike Grehan: Let’s just do a little bit on the nuts and bolts side. I mean, obviously Google is, it’s safe to say, the dominant player out there, so people focus their attention…
Duane Forrester: Well, come on now Mike, you know, today of all days you know I have to claim market superiority, being we’re recording this on April Fools’ day. Come on.
Mike Grehan: How did I know you were going to say that?
Duane Forrester: One day a year I can make that claim, right?
Mike Grehan: Yeah, one of the main questions, and I get asked this a lot because I’ve been in the industry for a long time, it’s as simple as this: if I optimize all of my content, whether that’s for the desktop, mobile, whichever it is, if I optimize it for Google, does that mean I’ve optimized it for Bing as well? Is it as simple as that?
Duane Forrester: Yeah. Generally speaking that’s it. When I say generally, I’m not hedging a bet here, we’re talking 99.9%. There is never a situation where we look at it and think to ourselves, “We want something to be our way exclusively, so that the business owner, the website owner has to make a choice whether it’s Google or us, or whether it’s Google or Yahoo, or Goggle or Duck Duck Go, anything like that. We don’t really want that, and nor does Google want that. Really, what we’re focused on, there are a lot of common areas that overlap, things like where you see Schema coming in and marking your content up? There are reasons Schema exists and why we ingest all of the languages out there. There are languages that people are using, whether it’s Microdata, Microformat, RDFa, Open Graph, and there’s no reason for them to change using those things, it’s more important that we’re able to see them. We take on that task to making sure that we can utilize that signal inbound the way it is. Rather than coming back and saying, “We know you just spent a bunch of time marking up your content over here with RDFa, we’d really rather you changed that to Schema.” That’s not going to make any friends or influence people, that’s just going to upset people and create work.
So, we look at these things and think, “All right, realistically, pragmatically, what can we do on our end to just take things the way they are?” Obviously, there are limits to that. If you’re producing thin content or crap content or you’ve got malware riddled all over your server, we’re going to put some stoppers on those things. But generally speaking, when people are optimizing their websites the number one thing they need to be focused on—you know this, I know this, almost everybody knows this, but it’s worth repeating—focus on the end user. Focus on the person visiting your website. If you’re consistently doing that, you’re actually going to win with the search engines as well.
Mike Grehan: Again, it’s safe to say that given what you’ve just explained there, that Bing is doing pretty much the same thing as Google. It’s out there, it’s crawling the web, it’s indexing the content in exactly the same way. I think, probably, one of the earlier conversations I had with Google way back in the day, they were talking about “We look at 100 signals, it’s not just about the text or just about links.” I have no idea where they are now, probably 1,000 signals. Same kind of thing with Bing?
Duane Forrester: Yeah, exactly the same situation. If you were to build your own algorithm for these things, you would start off with a pretty good thesis, a pretty good idea of where you wanted to begin. Most people that are savvy about this, you’d come up with 50 or 100 different iterations “if this”, “then that”, “when you see B look for C” and these kinds of things. And that’s ultimately what the algorithm is doing: it’s factoring those pieces to try to filter down to what’s quality and what’s relevancy. Then on top of that, as you start dealing with the scale that these engines are picking up on, you really start to see all of the edge cases, or what you thought were edge cases, are now popping up in millions of iterations.
I remember I was watching a TED talk once, and this brought home the concept of scale and it was incredible. I was at TED and I’m watching this gal, I believe her name was Adele; she runs the incidence and crisis management at Twitter. She was relaying a story where she was in a meeting one day with a new employee and they were running some numbers on things, and this new form of abuse had popped up. The new employee had said, “It’s a one in a million thing and it’s not something we really need to focus on right now.” His point was that it was pretty rare and that maybe we should put time into things that are happening more frequently. She thought about it for a second and said, “That means it’s happening about 36 times a day to users on Twitter.” That gave everyone a pause for a moment where they were like, “Wow, one in a million just became 100 plus individuals every day.” When you start thinking of scale, that’s the scale that search is happening at. Search is happening beyond that. The last time I checked with the search engineers, and this is probably about two years ago now that I asked this question, there were a little over 7 trillion pages on the web. Obviously that’s going to have grown from then, but 7 trillion pages on the web, really?
Mike Grehan: Mind boggling.
Duane Forrester: It really is. And here’s the problem: until the search engine goes and crawls it, we have no understanding of whether it’s useful or not. It’s only after we go ahead and put all the resources behind it, literally have servers spinning hard drives, crunching the data and looking at that stuff, do we come to a conclusion that the algorithm, after looking at hundreds of factors, says, “That’s garbage, nope that’s quality, put it in the index and here’s what it’s relevant for.” There’s a hard cost to that. It’s a small cost if you’re at a small scale, but when you’re at that scale that stuff costs money.
Mike Grehan: On the subject of quality, which always comes around of course, and just talking about algorithms, over the years Google has rolled out its various pandas and penguins and hummingbirds. Does Bing have its own kind of algorithm zoo as well? I mean, are you getting rid of all of the crap in exactly the same way?
Duane Forrester: We’re focused on the same kind of crap, obviously. We’re not interested in thin content, we’re not interested in too much advertising above the fold, all of those things have an analogy, I guess, if you will, between both spaces. How we do it’s a little bit different. We tend not to do large rollouts like you see with Google. We tend to bake things into the algorithm and we do a very long-term period of testing before we understand what’s going to be affected. We will continually refine until we get to a point where, when we roll it out, only those who should be affected are affected. I make that statement realizing that it sounds like it’s a sure thing.
I will admit straight up that oftentimes, sometimes people do get caught up in that, who shouldn’t be caught up in that. The fact of the matter is, if it looks like spam, and it smells like spam, the algorithm then may chart it as spam. Even in those instances, usually what we find is – it’s complete innocence that led somebody to that location. Where they didn’t realize they were doing this, they didn’t realize that the way they were building their website or the signals they were giving off, might be construed as spam in some way. As soon as you alert them to it, they will immediately— and, generally, the alert is they plummet in the rankings—they’ll ping the customer support people and say, “Hey, I ranked fine last week and now all of a sudden I’m not even in your index anywhere. Or if I look up on my domain I’m not there anymore, what’s going on?” That’s a flag for our teams to then go take a look and see, “Hey, was this person accidentally hit by the filter that we applied to all these known spam things?”
We see that from time to time. Then we will literally just reply to them and say, “Yeah, this is the pattern and you might want to change X or Y.” It is fairly rare. I know Google likes to, or at least in the past they used to make the statements of, “Less than one percent of all websites,” and that kind of thing. We’re much quieter on those topics.
Mike Grehan: I tend to find sometimes, Duane, that you talk to clients and there are a couple ways of looking at this. On the one hand they’ll say, “Looks like we got hit by this algorithm, it’s so unfair, why did they do that to us, we haven’t done anything wrong.” Then you go take a look and you go, “Dude, you know exactly what you did wrong.” Then there are the other guys, who are saying, “Google just hit me with a penalty and I have no idea why they did that” or even “Bing hit me with a penalty, I have no idea why they did that,” and there are a dozen other reasons that affected their ranking and nothing to do with the algorithm.
Duane Forrester: Yeah. The reality here as well, and this is I think something that’s important for folks to keep in mind, the algorithm is mathematics at work. It’s applied learning, and the goal is to have the algorithm learn from its past experience to grow in the right direction to make future decisions.
Along the way, part of learning is that there will be a mistake. It’s inevitable. It’s easy for us, as humans, if your job is to understand how to rate a website for quality or if you’re an SEO and you have a good feel for these things. Anyone of us who are on your shows or even listening to your shows can probably scan a website, find half a dozen things that need to be improved almost instantly and say “This could be better, this should be fixed, this is wrong, you might want to try this instead.”
Whereas the algorithm is looking at that and saying, “Hold on a second, how do I feel about this thing, and to what degree do I feel that way, I’ve got all these other factors, does that change how I feel about this to some degree? Yeah, I feel a little better about it because of A, B and C.” There’s a whole lot of those things, which ultimately means that when it manifests in a human being, it’s indecision, we come to that moment where we’re like, I could go either way, it’s 50/50 in my mind. The algorithm won’t hit 50/50, it will always be very clearly in one camp or another, even if it is only by three spots to the right of the decimal, it will tip in one direction. Then is the decision point for it, where it makes the decision. You know, sometimes it happens.
My favorite thing that I constantly see and so I’m constantly telling people about it and mentioning it in blogs and everything else is, “Know the history of your domain.” I see this all the time with new businesses starting up and people who are like, “Oh my god, I’ve found the perfect domain name on the drop service, and it cost me eighty dollars, and I can’t believe it, and here we go, my life is going to change and the world is going to buy to my new product, and blah, blah, blah.” That’s great. Then six months later they are struggling to rank and they’re not sure why, and they’re struggling to even get into the Bing index and they’re not sure why. Then they reach out and I go take a look and I find out that six years ago it was marked as spam and it’s never been changed because, quite frankly, the entire history of the domain was spam. What you’re doing is beating your head against the wall that you didn’t even know existed. It’s not hard to see that stuff on the Wayback Machine, it’s right there.
Mike Grehan: How do you think you got the domain freemoney.com for twenty five bucks?
Duane Forrester: Exactly. Still people very much like to think of this concept of business moving at the speed of a click on the Internet, because that’s how everything happens. The reality is business on the Internet moves at the pace of business, which isn’t necessarily as fast as the Internet. Which also means that the same tenets apply. You have to do due diligence on things. Something comes to you and it looks too good to be true, probably you want to double check that, because there’s a good chance it is.
Mike Grehan: Exactly. You mentioned tools before, when we just opened the conversation. Obviously that’s always a work in progress. If I’m optimizing for Bing and I really want to make sure that I’m getting the best and feeding you the best content, what kind of support, in terms of tools and backup, do I get from Bing?
Duane Forrester: Back in 2012, we released the latest iteration of the Webmaster tools, and obviously we’ve been adding to them constantly since then. It was probably the biggest update. At that time, the usual stuff was included, like Sitemaps. We actually built an organic keyword research tool that’s in there. Not a keyword research tool based on paid advertising, but one based on actual organic statistics from organic search. That was different and that was handy. We’ve got some free SEO reporting in there. It’s not incredibly in-depth, it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s a great place for folks to start, because we will literally show you a visualization of your webpage, show you the things that aren’t right, and then explain to you why you need to fix them. It’s a great SEO-by-numbers tool kit.
Recently, we’ve added things in, like the ability to do some app linking. If you have an official app related to your business or a Facebook page, anything like that, whether it’s g+, an app in the Google Play store, whatever, it doesn’t matter, we have a space inside Webmaster tools, where you can officially link those objects that you own to your Webmaster tools account. That data then flows into Bing itself, into the core search mechanisms, and helps them make those connections to understand which apps are related to which businesses, and so on. That’s some cool stuff, right?
Mike Grehan: Very cool, yeah.
Duane Forrester: One thing I always love to remind people of, is when you’re submitting Sitemaps, submit an RSS feed in there. We tell people in there you can. People generally overlook this opportunity, and it’s a huge opportunity to make sure that your most current content is what we’re seeing as soon as you publish it. It’s a super simple step that folks can take, and it’s well worth it.
Mike Grehan: Fabulous. You also mentioned mobile is really important, that’s got your focus, your attention at the moment, certainly got Google’s attention. Same thing applies with Bing. If we’re mobile friendly, are we going to get better treatment?
Duane Forrester: Well, this is the thing. It’s less about “we reward you for being more mobile friendly”, which is kind of what SEOs generally want, “If I do this work then I should rank better.” The fact of the matter is that what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to serve the intent of the searcher in a more reasonable fashion. If that searcher is on a mobile device, we can detect that, then it makes sense for us to be serving up the responses that are actually mobile friendly, that someone can consume there. We do reach a tipping point, because if everybody is crap and there are no good mobile results to show, then we have to start making some trade-ups here on, “Do we show A even though it’s not very mobile friendly but is the best answer and everything else is a poor answer, even though it’s mobile friendly?”
We hope that as time progresses we get more and more people focusing on mobile and optimizing for mobile, so that there are less and less of those decision points that have to be touched on. I will say this, though, generally speaking we are seeing a good trend in this. People get it, businesses understand it, and they’re investing in this area. It’s not something that’s news to anybody at this point.
Mike Grehan: One final thing I suppose, just wrapping up in terms of making comparisons. Generally speaking, you’re saying if you’re good for Google and tweak it correctly, you’re good for Bing as well. Are there any benefits with Bing, because I’ve heard people say that they do better in certain verticals with Bing than they do with Google, would that be correct?
Duane Forrester: Yeah, there’s a white paper that’s out there that talks about conversion rates from traffic from Bing. If I remember this correctly, the data was out I think last year, and it showed that people that come from Bing convert higher, so they spend more, and they convert more frequently, so their conversion rate is a little bit higher. If you look at that, I know that generally speaking, when people are searching on Bing, that we see a bit more of long tail action on Bing. That generally points to a searcher who is little bit savvier, knows little bit more about what they’re looking for, they’re asking for something with greater clarity, and therefore the answer can be much more obvious for them.
There are ways to use that to your benefit when you’re actually talking about, “Hey, I have an object, I want you to buy it, here’s my sales message to you.” Generally speaking, the focus that we have is so pinpointed around quality that probably the number one thing that folks want to be paying attention to is making sure you’ve got an excellent user experience and you’re representing all of your content in a quality manner. Those are things that make Bing bots salivate.
Mike Grehan: Those have been great insights, Duane. I really appreciate it. I know that you get around in the industry lot, always speaking at events. Where do we get to see you next?
Duane Forrester: I am going to be … that’s an excellent question, where am I? Just wrapped up SMX West. I’m going to be at the BILD conference in San Francisco at the end of April, beginning of May. Probably hit SMX Advanced in June, because it’s in my backyard, and then it looks like I may be over for SMX Paris this year as well. That will be fun, yeah.
Mike Grehan: Very nice. I think probably the only time that we’ll get to cross paths, unless you happen to be coming through New York City, where you’re always invited to come and join us on the 65th floor and enjoy the view, I think PubCon is probably going to be the next opportunity. I assume that you’ll be doing PubCon?
Duane Forrester: I have every desire to do PubCon. I know Brett has his hands full right now with a new baby and April PubCon. I’m going to start pestering him in May and see what we can work out for the fall. Otherwise, the next time I’m in New York I’m definitely going to take you up on this, Mike, and come see you guys.
Mike Grehan: Cool. Brett dropped me a note. He says he’s living in the Land of No Sleep at the moment.
Duane Forrester: Exactly. New baby, that’ll happen.
Mike Grehan: All right Duane, that was great. Much appreciated. Thanks very much. Catch you next time you’re in town.
Duane Forrester: Cool. Thanks, Mike.