Search of the record a podcast coming to you from the google search team discussing all things search and having some fun along the way my name is gary with a b and i’m joined today by lizzy sessman from the search relations team of which i’m also part of say hi lucy i’m sorry i’m afraid i can’t do that what just say hi i’m i’m reading the script i don’t know it’s there in the notes what script it’s i’m

looking at it you’re looking at it too should i say hi gary just forget it that was lizzy so continuing with our in the spotlight series in which we present folks from the larger search marketing community who inspire us today we have a very special guest someone who’s uh very close to my heart in a very professional way michelle robbins hello thanks for having me well hi i think i haven’t seen you in person for a very long time two years it’s been a minute i think it was popcorn vegas when we last met i think so or something like that that would have been it that would have been the last big conference before

covid right and then um lockdowns and staying away from people and then we got bored at one point if i remember correctly and we started a bake off yes who started it one of us baked something and saw it and i i may have seen something that gary baked and i was like inspired to bake something and so then i baked something and then he baked something and it just kind of went back and forth every week where we sort of upped the ante on the challenge of

baking and uh there was one consistent thread through gary’s bakes however okay tell me more the man likes his matcha is all i will say well yeah because matcha is amazing and you have to put it in everything and you’re the matcha guy he is the matcha guy yeah and that’s why i have the but baking is not why we are here because it turns out this is not a cooking show so i would want to talk a little bit about you as well after all the baking because your


Career is quite inspiring and maybe we can inspire someone

by telling your story do you remember when was the first time you encountered a computer yeah what kind of computer it was oh gosh um i can’t remember what kind of computer it was i remember it being very large my mother worked um at a law firm she was a paralegal and so she worked on these very large computers for her job and in the summers um you know during junior high school i would go in and like do file clerk stuff and so that was the first time i ever saw computers they were definitely dos based and what were you doing on those computers i was not playing games i was a file clerk i was filing pages you know i have like a similar story uh with uh dos computers in my first interaction with a computer at my

grandpa’s optometry office and doing like patient uh data entry with the program that he made on dos uh and that was like a summer job did you get paid i think there was like some kind of deal about like a car being passed down or something uh so it it worked itself out that i got like a hand-me-down vehicle uh so i was paid with uh uh equipment i guess well if you got paid then it’s not slavery i guess i got paid with money with money yeah i guess you can be paid in other ways but uh yeah with money that you got to choose what to do with the money exactly yes the car was to drive me to future jobs uh so i think it was meant to be a vehicle in more ways than one i guess interesting and michelle one do you remember when was the first time you encountered the internet by enchance it was um actually aol instant messenger when people started using that that

was the first time you know besides like local network protocols i mean obviously email at work but um communicating with people not on your corporate network was uh aol instant messenger and then icq do you remember icq anybody i never actually used icq in our group it was somehow frowned upon to use icq but i don’t know why like i don’t remember why and everyone was using irc and then the mirk mi rc application and that was amazing for many reasons but in the seq no was aim much after that aim that’s aol’s instant messenger i remember the name aol instant messenger i guess i that’s so aol was before icq but then aim really took off and that’s what contrib i don’t think it contributed to the death of icq but everyone eventually moved off of icq as well and then there was trillion but that was more of a an app that you could combine all of the different platforms in and how about websites did you have like favorite websites where you went and checked recipes for example because it’s a cooking show there were not recipes on the webnet back in the day um no i didn’t actually start meaningfully working on the internet and using the internet um until much later when i

was working at the uh software and online startup in orange county oh cool that was when i first really started to you know it was after i i had worked in marketing at disney and so very traditional traditional media traditional marketing and left there uh to join a startup from some friends from college and half of the business was focused on software web server utility development and the other half was online you know getting people to get websites and uh it was really funny because we would hold these lunch and learns where we would have local businesses come in and we’d be like and this is the internet and you should probably have a domain name and so we had registered like el pollo loco we had all we had so many brands names because this is before they we tried to convince them like look we have your domain name but you should have it let us build a website for you um and they just thought we were

bananas it was it was really really an interesting time and at this point did you have your own website like you’re going around telling other people like you should have a website did you have one i did not because in my in from my perspective websites were for businesses um i did not have a business yet and so uh i did not see a need for a website i wasn’t like hey look at me so i didn’t i didn’t i didn’t have a use for one and i considered it more you know it was more work aligned it’s what we did it at work we built websites and we built you know applications and things like that it wasn’t until uh later that uh when i had my own consulting business and that’s when i pivoted into actually a way for marketing and more into computer science because while i was at the company it’s actually where i also learned search marketing first um the online division was run by danny sullivan you might have heard of him and ken was the founder of the software company and has been my long time mentor in my programming career so i learned search marketing

you know as search marketing evolved from the very early days in fact one time a bunch of us were at uh the movies it was an off site and uh we were all in line it was well empire strikes back was back in theaters come on so uh we’re all in line and i remember ken and danny were talking about e-commerce and this is before there was e-commerce but and they were asking me and another woman that worked there they were like do you think you’d ever buy clothes online and i was like what are you kidding why would you do that um so it’s really it’s it’s really been fun to kind of see the entire evolution of you know just using the web for information and for understanding information and shifting into it just being a daily part of our lives that we don’t even think about in the background i’m also counting that this was the your third job that you

mentioned at least or career change uh so that was the second so i went from disney to um the startup and then from there i really wanted to understand you know what the software side was doing right so they had brought me in to do you know sales and marketing because that was my background and so i felt like i could if i understood more about what they did and about the programs then i could more effectively market them so uh i said you know i want to understand more about actually what you guys do at a more fundamental level and this is where i think that uh when you talk about you know career development and how you can become involved in any given you know the industry or anything i think the

importance of having mentors and having people to sponsor you on your career trajectory is so critical i 100 would not be where i am today but for these four really key individuals that helped influence me and support me on my own journey and so from the software side um these uh three guys uh basically two of them said tell you what pick a topic set aside an hour in the conference room every week pick a topic and we’ll you know we’ll tell you all about it i was like okay great first topic tcp what’s that all about because my background wasn’t actually you know from an educational standpoint was not in technology i doubled in criminal justice and psychology so this was a complete 360 for me but once we started diving into it i realized this is really interesting and i really want to learn more and do more so i went back to uci and took programming courses through their uh extension and so oh wow i focused primarily on Microsoft technologies because they


built Microsoft web server utilities

so that was the technologies utilized in all of our programs so my first you know when i first started learning program it was all microsoft it was c vp you know all of that so that’s kind of what started my career shift into technology and from there um there was also another person at the company who he’s now been at google for probably over 20 years who at that time was our primary developer and designer he had come out of art school and he taught me html and css so i learned that from him and i learned the programming from these two incredible programmers who are now working like one works in biometric authentication at verisign and others worked at snap and is now at facebook i think so i had incredible mentors and then of course i learned you know search marketing and all

about search engines from danny so i consider myself very fortunate this is mind-blowing one thing i i find very interesting is that among let’s say my circles uh you are typically known as the person that collected person who who used to run these uh massive search engine marketing shows and uh you are more related to seo than to to computer science but it turns out that you’re related to computer science and psychology and marketing traditional marketing more than uh seo and seo folks well yeah i mean yes no so once the um the software founder uh relocated to the bay area um uh danny sullivan relocated to england for a time to do his own consulting and spin up search engine watch and um so then i opened my own

consulting business where i started doing web design and development application development for clients and as part of that work i would also do their seo it was just sort of you know oh and yes here’s seo um so i have done a lot of seo but that’s not my passion or my focus what is your passion and focus well right now it’s actually right now my focus is definitely it’s data and data science but um i’ve always had a passion for data and this goes back to my undergraduate work as well and your undergraduate work was in uh criminal justice and psychology yes and how did the data kind of come into play there oh research you know there’s you do a lot you do a lot of research and what you come to understand about data and how data is used and how to better and worse use data i would i would say um is applicable in marketing that’s sort of interesting like you you’ve got that base of how to look at the data from that kind of lens and then diving more technical yes on how to like procure the data and then analyze it yeah so it sounds like um a very non-linear career path right to go from marketing to tech and

media and data but data really does underpin all of it in each of those domains and it sounds like each sort of iteration of your career has sort of been driven by your own interest or like on the job learning or that you had a mentor who maybe suggested something i am curious about that like how did the seed get planted that maybe you should return to computer science and go back to school so the the seed got planted from basically um you know working with these great guys who never said no right who never said don’t worry your pretty little head about that those are that’s that’s programming you’re not going to get that i never heard that yeah i never i never encountered a blocker right it was always like hey yeah we’ll show you how to do that and and then i went back to school and any questions i had you know they’re like oh yeah no this is how this works this is how that works they were just incredibly generous and supportive right and like i said having that i think is critical and then uh it is my my own interest and passion right so after you know i was at the media company for 12 years and i had felt like well i’ve

kind of done everything i’m going to do here right so a couple of years before i decided to leave i had taken a certificate course out of mit on big data and social analytics and that was my first opportunity then to start writing in python because i hadn’t done anything in python prior to that point everything was kind of lamp stack focused and being able to uh understand the power and capability of analyzing big data sets right um to get that opportunity to have the opportunity to continue pursuing that i needed to shift into a different industry into different focus and um and i’ve been able to do that it’s been fantastic and i have decided to once again go back to school and i’m getting my master’s and i start a master’s program in the summer amazing this summer or going to start yeah yeah yeah i’ll start it this summer do you have any interesting

anecdotes or data anecdotes yeah i like i i i know that you you are so into data that you must have something interesting that you like a favorite data set oh gosh favorite data set um honestly what i’m most interested in looking at these days um when considering non-marketing based data sets right so data that’s not directly related to the work i’m doing day to day i’m most interested in understanding ethical applications and use of data and so ultimately that’s where i want to that’s where i want to end up is on the ethics side of ai and

machine learning interesting i imagine that kind of roots in in certain biases in data that might be there yes um and actually that’s how it it it does tie back to my undergraduate work right so i had to do a really large research project on the death penalty at one point and in looking at all of the data around just just criminal justice data in general and when you consider that these data sets are being used in the models where predictive policing is being used right the problems with these data sets are significant because these data sets are created by humans who bring their own subjectivity and bias to every decision-making step in the criminal justice system so whether or not you get pulled over by a policeman whether or not that policeman gives you a ticket whether or not you go to court and you you know you get bail you get sent i mean there’s there’s

discretion at every step of the way and how do you account for discretion in a data set and bias right that filters that finds its way into those data sets and so then those data sets are being utilized for decision making and that’s highly problematic so when we think about you know starting you know even just with the research that i found and the information that i found in doing the research as an undergrad on the death penalty which was really shocking to discover that it has less to do with people think and we can cut this out if we’re going on a tangent here just fyi but just for you

notification yes um the it’s not the race of the perpetrator that determines who’s going to get the death penalty it’s the race of the victim interesting yes that was shocking to discover and just the problems with you know how the death penalty gets adjudicated throughout and there’s research that’s been replicated over and over and over to support this and yet here we are so i’ve always been fascinated by looking into data and especially data around human behavior which when you think about marketing that’s the data we’re all using right so how are people using our websites how are people finding us what are the words they’re using that’s behavioral data yeah and that can be really problematic when the sources that go into that data set that you have is not fully inclusive or including all the the types uh i don’t know the sense is getting away from me but no no and and um and i do think that you know when we talk about the data that we all use in our our day-to-day jobs and

everything i don’t think there’s enough interrogation of the source of the data sets how these data sets are gathered so many people rely on third-party data sets or tools and we just like trust it implicitly like if you just cite your source like you’ve referenced something but then if you go and dig into okay like how many people were in that study oh it was only like 20 of them or like this was only from the us or something like can we really make a decision based off of that once you sort of start digging in then you realize like is this really representative and can we trust it oh yeah absolutely um i was asked to put together an algorithm to determine just something it doesn’t

actually matter what it was trying to determine but the suggestion was that i used the sentiment on twitter as part of that data set and i said no that’s a bad way to go and they didn’t understand well why wouldn’t you and i said well because most of America most of the world is not actually on twitter you’re dealing with you know a very problematic data set and the people that are on are very inactive so you’re injecting bias into the system you can’t use twitter as a barometer i mean that sort of begs the question is there any data set that is unbiased can you have something that is trusted or well-rounded i would say no honestly um i think that you can gather a lot of your own first-party data and that’s going to be the most informative for actions already taken things you already know but when you start mixing that data with third-party data sets and using it in ways that the the artifacts of that data were not necessarily

intended to be utilized right so it’s always a matter of whenever anyone comes to me and says you know we need a report that has this this and this i always say what are the questions you’re trying to answer because i don’t necessarily think that people understand the data they need to answer the questions they have i think people just assume we have this data therefore this is the answer yeah you have to find the right data within your data set to support whatever point you are making but that also has the trouble that very often i see

that people are misrepresenting the data in some sense basically they are saying that this happened ergo this is the way for example and then when you are actually looking at the data set or the data it’s like well actually yeah you can explain it that way but you can also explain like 10 other ways oh for sure why did why that why that data is there and that feels like bigger problem uh that that we have not just in in the seo industry but in many many industries where people are picking cherry picking data that support their hypothesis and then just use that and it’s not a new thing either because like end of 90s for example this doctor i was air quoting here who came up with this brilliant idea that vaccines cause certain conditions that was basically cherry-picking and it led to a big

change in how certain people perceive vaccines for example so yeah you definitely have to be careful about how you are presenting the data because you can mislead people very easily with it voluntarily or involuntarily yeah if you torture the data it will talk oh yeah and there’s a lot of there’s a lot of torturing of data going on quite a bit i would also suggest that in marketing people tend to still operate in silos while everyone says you know omnichannel is the way the truth and light in reality people still focus on their silo and the data within their silo and don’t necessarily understand how data from all of those channels impacts one another right i have a great example of this we had a had a client this agency had been brought on to do just their paid their lead funnel had been drying up and so they switched to using us for just their paid we’d only worked with them

for about three months and they weren’t seeing the results they were wanting to see and so usually i hear from people when there’s a problem and so they couldn’t figure out like what’s going on here what’s we know we’re doing everything right we’re getting leads but yet overall they’re not and so i spent about a week diving into all of the data all of the data that we had with this client market data with respect to are there things happening in the market that could be negatively impacting them i know a lot of people don’t think to go outside and look at market data and you know offline impacts and um couldn’t really find anything that was incredibly conclusive and

so i got on the phone with the head of marketing at the clients and i said tell me what you guys were doing um in this quarter and it was a quarter about a year ago because after it was after that quarter that everything seemed to sort of fall off the charts in every single channel for them all the channels um and they said well you know we weren’t really doing anything different oh wait we did stop running billboards and we pulled all of our media buys on tv and we stopped doing bus advertisements i was like okay thank you very much and and that was it right so that’s that’s what you know that’s

a that’s a data void that a lot of you know digital marketers don’t concern don’t consider the data they don’t have and how does that data impact the data they do have my favorite uh example for this or similar example is seasonality of traffic for example yes in seo and the first time i encountered this i was like a very junior seo for a very small company and the owner was complaining that we are bleeding traffic and the traffic just go is going away this was in january and then in february it was worse and in march he was yelling like crazy because there was no traffic and then he was showing that in december there was so much traffic like what happened to that we were just sitting there it’s like well gee i wonder what what happened people were buying your product in december and now they are not interested in it anymore because it’s not christmas

season but uh he refused to accept that and that’s crazy but it’s not surprising i mean if you’re thinking about your business then depending how passionate you are you might not want to accept it and that’s also another trouble that we have with data that sometimes people don’t want to accept what certain data is clearly trying to tell but oh well we are humans right that’s what keeps it fun and exciting is finding those answers okay we have very different definition of fun how about inclusivity do you have any interesting data or anecdotes about the gender gap in seo or conferences that you’ve been running i do a number of years ago when it first became you know an extremely noticeable problem in search conferences that um there were a lot of manuals there weren’t a lot of women on on sessions and things and presenters

and and keynotes in particular i had a lot of data that i could look at from our you know decade of producing conferences and multiple conferences a year and so what i focused on was the data we received in pitches right so we would have people pitch to speak so i analyzed um all of the pitches we got by gender and then the acceptance rates and the diversity of our our panels and our sessions and everything actually tracked because as it turned out we would

only receive for every you know two or three pitches from a man would be one pitch from a woman and we ended up having about 30 percent female 70 male panels so it was a problem because how do you encourage people to put themselves out there more and how do you solve for the challenges that might exist that might be unique to minorities and underrepresented communities that are maybe not to the folks that we would see pitching regularly like how do you address what oftentimes is inequity in the ability to travel and the ability to be sent to or pay for you know a conference appearance all of that matters as well as how you’re selecting and how you’re sourcing your speakers i think that actually got much better and i remember that it was a conference in seattle i think you were the one of the organizers and i remember this conference specifically because it hit me that this is a nice change because the two other

panelists on stage were women and i was the third one and i was the only guy there and it felt somehow great like i never realized before that it was the other way usually and i was just sitting there like a pumpkin as usual and then suddenly it was different and then it made me realize more consciously that this is a problem and it’s being fixed by the conference organizers however they can i don’t actually know how what was employed to to fix this gap or how were you trying to fix this intentionality you have to be intentional you have to be eyes on it you have to not expect it to happen naturally you have to be intentional i know which panels you were talking about and that’s what it was it was intentionality was it anything

that you did to get more submissions like the the pitch number or the selection process or like across the board things that you changed in order to make the panels more inclusive so we did change the pitch process a bit in that we would give feedback you know we’d get a pitch and i could look at a pitch and see that this is not a very strong pitch but i can understand what they’re trying to get at and these few changes and adding this would make this a stronger session so i would reach back out to that person and suggest these changes or focus it this way or let’s let’s look at this you know as well as just reaching out to people and saying you know we’d like you to speak can you pitch you know i know you you know

what you’re doing you’re talented you know go ahead and pitch a lot of people feel like i mean it’s it’s i feel like it’s almost a catch 22 right right it’s like people think like well i’m never going to get selected for a session because nobody knows me but nobody knows me because i’ve never appeared anywhere and so at some point you have to put yourself out there and that can be very hard but i also think a good place to start for people looking to raise their profile get some speaking arrangements i would suggest go to conferences and meet people don’t go necessarily expecting you’re going to learn a ton but try and network just be really effective at meeting people walk up to somebody that you respect in the industry and say could you spend some time with me i’m looking for a mentor i’ve found that most people in this industry are incredibly giving of themselves and their time and are actively engaged in that kind of mentorship and

sponsorship anyway so find those people and would you say that like your goal is to speak at a conference and like please help me get there like when you are reaching out to find a mentor would you be targeted or would you recommend that people uh be specific about their goal in order to find like a good match i guess with a mentor i’d suggest people find a mentor just for their career pathing in general um and whether that’s internal where they where they work or if that’s you know within within an industry group or meeting someone networking i don’t think that speaking has to be a goal i don’t think that becoming a celebrity in seo necessarily is is a goal i mean for some it is and that’s fine but i just think it’s more about

your career development and seo is a really interesting space because you know there are a lot of different ways to get at an answer there are a lot of different ways to get at a solution to a problem and the more experience you have to people who have had diverse experiences working on different types of sites working with different and within different verticals even the approaches can be wildly different so the more exposure you get to those differences the stronger you’re going to be as an seo so i think it’s it’s more in service of making you stronger in your craft and if as a side benefit you end up on a stage that’s great but i would suggest just for your own you know euro notification well i think that was a wonderful

way to wrap this up um it was uh the motivation that everyone needed definitely me you gonna get out there and start speaking now gary no he’s gonna get a mentor the the call to action was like get a mentor i need to be mentored i need advice in my life direction yeah lizzy we have to talk oh no if people wanted to find you where can they find you uh twitter michelle robbins uh also on linkedin do you post on linkedin now and again all right so we will put the links in the description of the episode so you can find michelle and we are going to mention you in the tweet on twitter and with that thank you for joining us here michelle it was great having you thanks so much for having me this was a lot of fun.

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