Interview With Danny Sullivan

After interviewing Danny Sullivan for Technology Weekly (while you have to sign up for it, it is free), I decided to create a blog post from it and scavange up bits from the internet to fill in my blanks (future of search taken from “Out of my Gord“).

Danny Sullivan is one of the best-known names in the world of internet search technology. Since first researching how search engine algorithms worked back in 1995, Danny Sullivan has remained one of the world’s foremost public authorities on search algorithms. Everyone from Google’s founders to ordinary business people have looked to him as an expert as they discovered the importance of relevant search results. His early monitoring of search engine changes, “Search Engine Watch”, developed into a large business from which he opted out in 2006 to start his own new company.

In 1995, before Google existed and there were about 40 different algorithms, Danny Sullivan was working in the area of web development. Even while the internet was still somewhat new, ecommerce had emerged on the scene and some companies were putting significant time and money into creating web versions of their offline shops. One client of Danny’s was not ranking well for a term they desired to be found for on many of the search engines. At the time, there were no tips online for people to look at and learn from. Danny spent a significant amount of time investigating what factors influenced search engine rankings, then published his seminal findings online.

Danny’s work was the first attempt to understand the complex algorithms that various search engines used, as well as divine from that how to rank well for a given term. While others within the field stumbled and guessed, Danny codified what it took to rank well. As a result of this pioneering work, he received a lot of attention and his search research became an online ‘must-read’. This attention, combined with his professional interest led him to create “Search Engine Watch” – a place where anyone could turn to and find information on how search engines were ranking sites.

As a result of his pioneering work, the founders of Google referenced his early work as they progressed with their own engine. Danny’s early work on search rankings sparked a passion within him that has followed him throughout his life to the present. Search was never something he expected to be writing about more than ten years later. When he made a recent change from Search Engine Watch to his newly created Search Engine Land, the community appreciation and ‘love’ revitalised him and kept him interested in staying involved. Since December 2006 he has been working on Search Engine Land which has quickly become the primary point of information on and about search engines and related activities.

Working further to keep in touch and on top of changes and affect change, he has gotten involved in running a series of conferences with the inagural event in London in November. Focusing on a more general basic to intermediate level, he is also trying to push more networking based on his own experiences. He has found that one of the most important things about a conference isn’t just the conference sessions – it is the exchange of knowledge and expertise that happens while people socialise. This vital knowledge exchange has spurred Danny in to changing his own conferences, adding formal networking sessions both around break times and after the day ends.

When looking to the future, Danny was asked if social search would dominate search anytime soon? “I really don’t see this happening” he adamantly commented. While he cited Maholo as probably the best example of a social search engine, he also stated that it was not threatening the existing engines. “Not even Wikipedia has all the answers”, he said, “and so I think a search engine can present different options to answer a question.” Search is evolving with the introduction of universal search, one boxes and the like and as a result nothing else seems poised to replace it.

Recently on Sphinn, a news aggregator site Danny runs, there was a suggestion that he could and should build a better search engine. And while he said he was never tempted, he also said that he felt a yearning to actually work on a search engine. He would like to be able to make changes and effect the way things get ranked rather than simply writing about it after the fact. He would love to be proactively involved. It would be a huge challenge though, he admits, citing Microsoft who are still struggling to build a better search engine.

For the future, Danny sees a greater push towards personalisation within search engines. With search having crept in to almost every facet of our lives and gadgets increasingly web-enabled with search built in, having an engine that understands what you mean when you search for “Fire London” will be indispensable. The future of search is still firmly with search engines. When asked about what search engine he would use if Google did not exist or was down for a week, he very quickly answered that Yahoo would get his search business. With the most mature and longest established crawler, it has excellent search results and so would easily be his first choice. The old ones are still the best, it seems.

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4 Responses to “Interview With Danny Sullivan”

  1. Julie Joyce says:

    Excellent post as always…fine choice of subject too. Did you get to ask him if he’d be bringing doughnuts to Vegas for Lisa?

  2. Anita says:

    Great post Judith – interesting insights on some really important questions.

  3. Cool post, ha! Couldn’t write excellent as it was all done above =)

    Danny rocks!

  4. Danny is cool but it was hard to joke with him.

    I did ask about his position as official pastry supplier to Lisa and that did make him laugh. I’d hazzard a guess that he’ll have doughnuts!

    It was fun to do for work though and nice I could rework it for the blog.

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