Barry Schwartz was just 23 when he launched Search Engine Roundtable in 2003. Google had started five years earlier, and optimizing web pages for organic rankings was primitive, at least by today’s standards.
Fast forward to 2022, and Search Engine Roundtable is a pillar of industry news and how-to. And so is Schwartz. He’s a pioneering tech publisher, journalist, and search engine authority.
I’ve long admired his work. I asked him, at his 19-year anniversary with the site, for this interview. What follows is the audio of our entire conversation and a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Kerry Murdock: What prompted you to launch Search Engine Roundtable?
Barry Schwartz: I started learning about how sites rank in different search engines a few years before 2003. Many conversations were occurring in online discussion forums. I used to follow and participate in those.
I started pulling out interesting daily threads and topics. I wanted to publish and share them with the rest of the SEO community in a format that’s easily searched. Search Engine Roundtable was that vehicle.
Murdock: You’ve seen many changes in organic search. What are the most notable?
Schwartz: In the early days, Google would update its index every 30 days. Now you publish something, and it’s in Google’s index within minutes. Google took search engine rankings from just looking at words on a page to using page rank and off-page factors. That was huge. One of the first significant updates targeted sites trying to manipulate rankings. Google created algorithms to look at those things.
Another change was Google’s launch of Universal Search, which it stole from Ask Jeeves. Jim Lanzone, now the CEO of Yahoo, launched Google’s version. Universal Search made it so that when we type a query, we get news results, images, and video, all with the same search.
Before that, it was just 10 blue links and nothing with images. You’d have to go to the different search engines within Google, such as Image Search or News, to get that content. Now everything is on one search result page based on the query, which is a significant change in the user interface.
Murdock: Today’s SEO is crazy competitive. What’s your advice to a new ecommerce merchant looking to attract organic search traffic?
Schwartz: It’s tough. If you’re selling a commodity that anybody else could sell, such as an iPad, you’ll be competing against thousands of companies. It’s much more complicated now than in 2003.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Focus on making your website better than others. Figure out what makes an excellent purchase experience. If you implement experiences above and beyond what others do, Google will eventually rank you.
You have to prove yourself, just as you do when you open up a small physical store in a mall. You might get some foot traffic, but you need to differentiate yourself to succeed.
There are things sellers could do technically when they start an ecommerce site. There’s Google Merchant Center, which is free and integrates with other platforms. It’s now built into Google Search Console. Submitting your products to Merchant Center means they could be included in Google Shopping.
There are other tactics to implement, such as structured data, where you can mark up your products to have reviews, stars, pricing, and more in the actual search results. This way, no matter how you rank on the page, shoppers will see those rich results in search results and click on your item instead of those that rank higher.
But the big players use these strategies, too. Smaller merchants should consider what they can do above and beyond. Sometimes you have to spend money on advertising. Google Ads — including Shopping ads and Performance Max — can help.
Still, you’re competing with everybody else. There’s a lot to choose from, unlike in 2003 when seemingly anybody could rank.
Murdock: Search Engine Roundtable is now a pillar in the SEO community.
Schwartz: I write about five stories daily between Search Engine Roundtable and Search Engine Land, where I’m a contributing editor. I’m very involved in the search community. I still follow what people say in the discussion forums, on Twitter, and other social media.
I won’t cover something unless it’s publicly mentioned where a search engine could crawl it and anybody can access it. I won’t reference anything behind a paywall or off the record. There’s a lot of secrecy in the SEO industry. You have to write to earn the trust not just of the SEO community but search engines, too.
I have SEOs and personnel at Google and other search engines tell me things off the record because they trust me. I scour discussion forums and social media posts through different tools daily. There’s a treasure trove of stuff that Google constantly tests, and it’s fun to follow. I love discovering new things.
Murdock: What’s the future of Google’s ranking algorithm?
Schwartz: It’s about prioritizing the best content. There’s so much for Google to select from now. But they don’t always get it right. Google is constantly tweaking and making things better, at least in their mind.
From a publisher and ecommerce store perspective, stop worrying about the algorithms. Focus on your website, content, product descriptions, images, and features.
How can you make that experience feel like going into an Apple store and getting one-on-one customer service from a human? You can build technology to do that, which will reward you in terms of rankings in Google in the long term.
Murdock: Where can folks follow you?
Schwartz: I’m at Seroundtable.com.