Interview with Nathan Safran of Conductor, Inc.

Written by Nick Stamoulis

Interview with Nathan SafranRecently I had the chance to interview Nathan Safran. Nathan is Director of Research at Conductor, Inc, an SEO technology company in New York, authoring insightful research on trends in the natural search industry. He is a monthly columnist at SearchEngineLand and Search Engine Watch and a a former Analyst at Forrester Research. Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine.

Thanks so much to Nathan Safran for spending the time to answer all of my questions! 🙂

Question: As the Director of Research for Conductor, Inc., what kind of insights into the world of SEO are you hoping to uncover?

Answer from Nathan Safran: We look at the world of Search from a variety of angles at Conductor including:

1. Site Structure:  We’ve done research on things like how links flow in/out of a website, how SEOs implement anchor text, usage of newer technologies such as rel=author etc

2. User Behavior: This is one of my favorite aspects of Search as it gets into the mind of the online user and how they make use of  things like search vs. social, and what they think of SERP changes etc

3. Search Marketer Behaviors: How search marketers spend their time, their goals and problems they face, technology adoption, how they communicate inside their organization, jobs available in the industry etc

We try to be well rounded in how we look at the Search space, thinking about things from a few different viewpoints.  In doing so we are hoping to uncover insight into how SEO practitioners are thinking about and executing on their practice, and how searchers are interacting with search, social, etc.

Question: What is one of the most surprising things you learned about search marketing and search professionals from Conductor’s research efforts?

Answer from Nathan Safran: Coming to Conductor from the world of corporate research at Forrester Research 3.5 years ago, I did not have a background in the SEO world.  In learning more and more about the SEO industry, I was surprised to discover the variance of maturity levels in the practice from even one company to the next in the same industry—the disparity was unlike anything I had come across before.  This means that we’ve tried to create research and content that could appeal to both organizations and practitioners up and down the maturity spectrum.

Question: Do you really think 90 days is long enough to show the real value of SEO? How could a marketing manager turn a less than stellar 90 day “test run” around and still convince the CMO that SEO is worth it?

Answer from Nathan Safran: I think this question refers to the guide we published not long ago, “A 90-Day Plan to Get the SEO Budget You Need”. In this guide, we laid out a plan for the SEO professional looking for budget from Management, that encourages them to go farther than many articles of this genre suggest, and actually define (conservatively) and then execute on a 90 day plan of success in the search rankings.  From the article:

I’m going to take this a step further than many of the articles you may have seen in the “making-a-case-to-management-for-SEO investment” genre that typically stop at “show management the size of the huge opportunity in natural search.”  The truth is, (again, engaging our inner empath) from management’s point of view, seeing the size of the potential search opportunity, while well-intentioned, is little more than a promise, and these are often met with “I’ll believe it when I see it” skepticism (whether explicitly expressed or not).

The challenge SEOs face when going to management for budget is that by defining the size of the opportunity and stopping there, it often leaves management with an “I’ll believe it when I see it…” kind of thinking.  Actually executing on a 90 day success plan allows the SEO to put his/her “money where his/her mouth is” and show management that SEO is not just all talk.  Of course, one should be conservative in selecting long tail/low competition keywords they feel good about being able to achieve some movement on in a 90 day period, but I do think it is important to demonstrate at least some measure of success when making a play for substantial budget even if it does carry some risk.

Question: Is a bigger budget the best solution to all of a site’s SEO woes?

Answer from Nathan Safran: Not necessarily.  Of course more budget helps, but very often in SEO it’s about working smarter not harder.  For example, this article describes how to use technology to identify and target striking distance keywords (keywords on page 2 of the search rankings).  Moving a keyword only a few spots from the top of page one to the bottom of page 2 can have a substantial impact on CTR and traffic, so that’s an example of working smart rather than hard and that is not about just throwing budget at the problem.

Question: If a marketing manager only had 5 minutes (no time for flashy slideshows or evangelical lunch meetings) to sell SEO to their C-Suite, what are the best metrics to pull out to plead their case?SEO-opportunity

Answer from Nathan Safran: At the end of the day, the C-suite cares about revenue (not rankings and usually not even traffic).  Again, from 90 Days to Get the SEO Budget You Need”, this graphic shows how SEOs should convert a market assessment from being about the traffic that rank improvements would generate to the revenue it would generate so as to speak in the language that the c-suite cares about.

Question: A lot of sites struggle with measuring the ROI of their SEO program, especially if they have long sales cycles. What’s your advice for those companies struggling to connect the dots?

Answer from Nathan Safran: True attribution is a thorny issue and although there are attribution systems out there, my understanding of them is that they will only bring you part of the way there at best.

However, as a starting point on this, I’d say make sure you are looking at the metrics and observing the elements of the purchase path that that you can control. That means making sure analytics are set up to capture conversion behavior on your website, and that you are observing the conversion path from the top of the funnel (market share and keyword rankings) all the way through the path they take on your website, finally through to the conversion path.  Then, if you are not already using them, make use of some advanced reporting in your analytics package to understand how natural search is impacting your website’s traffic and conversions.  Technology like Conductor’s Searchlight enterprise SEO platform now has ranking data together with traffic and conversion data in one place, making it easier to tie ROI to SEO.  These steps will go a long way to helping the search marketer measure ROI.

Question: How do you feel about SEO being positioned in its own dedicated department in the enterprise? Do you feel SEO deserves its own department or should it stay under Marketing?

Answer from Nathan Safran: We wrote about this trend in our research, “Why 2013 Will Be the Year of the SEO”. We found that 26% of organizations now have SEO positioned in its own department.  Among other supporting findings of the study, we think it is indicative that organizations are now recognizing the value of SEO both on its own merit and in regards to the return it brings relative to other channels.

The question of whether it should be in its own Department or stay under Marketing is less important than the question of how enabled SEO is to empower and equip other departments and stakeholders in the organization to succeed:  How able is SEO to equip Product Management with insight into their product line? How closely can they work with PR to craft content that will be favored by search algorithms?  We think this—organizational enablement—rather than where exactly SEO is positioned–is key to moving forward with SEO success in the organization.

Question: What exactly are “striking distance keywords?” What makes these keywords so valuable for SEO?

Answer from Nathan Safran: We use the term “striking distance keywords” to denote keywords ranking on page 2.  They are valuable because they are already within sight of page one, and because of the millions of potential results in “striking distance”, you are almost relevant. They are often overlooked as low hanging fruit to go after out of the gate while implementing a longer term plan for keywords farther down the search listings.

Question: How should a website divvy up their SEO efforts to ensure each striking distance keyword is given the help it needs to improve?

Answer from Nathan Safran: Not 100% sure what is meant by this, but the efforts needed to move striking distance keywords onto page one include on-page optimization, content creation, reporting and analysis.

Question: Do you feel an enterprise would be better off outsourcing their SEO to a full-service firm or hiring an in-house team? Why?

Answer from Nathan Safran: I think there are different setups that work differently for different organizations and can vary from one organization/culture to the next.  Outsourcing to a firm or agency can work very well, although I’d recommend that those that do outsource work with the firm as a partner rather than as a blind outsource. 

Bringing SEO in-house means you are likely to be well equipped to enable stakeholders throughout the org.

Question: If they do decide to outsource their SEO, how can a marketing manager make sure they are working with a good SEO firm and not being tricked by an SEO conman?

Answer from Nathan Safran: By using Searchlight themselves to monitor their SEO progress J. In all seriousness using a platform like Searchlight will keep the marketing manager in the drivers’ seat by giving them a chance to see for their own eyes the progress their firm is (hopefully) making.  Data can be segmented, automated reports can be established etc.  Think about it—you don’t get your site analysis data from the company that manages your A-B testing, so why do the same with your natural search data?  And, the marketing manager can be an active participant by helping to identify opportunity the SEO firm can pursue.

Question: What sets Searchlight apart from other SEO software products?

Answer from Nathan Safran: The depth of insight, the flexibility of reporting, and the intuitive user interface.

Question: Aside from Searchlight of course, what are some of your other favorite SEO tools?

Answer from Nathan Safran: We’re more on the Research side of things than the practitioner, so we use Excel a lot, SEMRush, Google Trends, Soovle for keyword research, Topsy for social insight and bitly for url data.  We also love coming up with interesting data sources to mine such as Linked-In and for SEO jobs data.

Connect with Nathan Safran on Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.


This non-paid interview is designed to give the Brick Marketing audience insights and different perspectives of SEO, link building, social media and web marketing. Past expert interviews include: Ann Handley, Eric Ward, Mike Moran, Andy Beal, and Jordan Kasteler to name a few.

If you would like to be interviewed by the Brick Marketing team please contact Brick Marketing here:

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