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'Some people will always see SEO as a game': Q&A with Edward Cowell, Mediacom's director of SEO

Mediacom's director of SEO UK & international, Edward (Teddy) Cowell talks to The Drum ahead of judging the Search Awards about his career, his views on how search is developing and offers some thoughts on the effect the Internet of Things will have on the sector.

How did you get into working in search?

Like many people who have been in search for a long time, I fell into this career by accident rather than design. In 1996 I was working for MSN during the launch of Internet Explorer 3, the browser that initially led to the growth of the internet as a consumer medium.

My time at MSN got me interested in the internet. I then moved on to work for BNP-Paribas (one of the biggest investment banks in Europe) where I ended up as an internet analyst. In September 1999 I left BNP-Paribas and, with my partner Lucy Cokes, set up Neutralize.

During my time at Paribas I’d done a lot of research and had come to realise what differentiated successful internet businesses was their ability to effectively market themselves online, not what their websites looked like. Lucy had also written a thesis on the use of search engines as a research tool and she was already optimising websites on a basic level, so search was a really natural area for us to focus on and for me to develop in.

Even though display and banner advertising got the big budgets in the early days, I think it was always obvious how critical search was to the fabric of the web, and therefore why it was the area I wanted to stick with.

Search has quickly become a crucial component to every marketer's brand strategy - but where do you feel it is still falling down generally?

Firstly, it has always been a crucial component to every marketer's brand strategy, it’s just that most people didn’t realise it because, as a community, we’ve been obsessional about non-brand and weren’t valuing organic brand traffic enough.

At MediaCom we have heavily focused on developing a more holistic view of a brand’s entire digital ecosystem, a system not silo approach. Where most brand marketers have been falling down is appreciating where value comes from – such as appreciating how much the success of other above the line media (where investment is often significantly greater than search) is dependent on and propped up by a good brand search journey.

You could think of it in cross media conversion rate optimisation terms – when you are driving loads of brand interest subtle tweaks to that journey funnel, such as removing negative content or optimising around consideration set terms, can have a big impact on the overall success of the business.

Spend through search has become a normal approach over the years, are we near an end to seeing people truly attempt to game the SEO system or will that never go away?

Unfortunately some people will always see it as a game rather than focusing on being the best and making their clients the best they can be. Whilst it has been a painful journey for many people, I think Google did a good thing with their Penguin and Panda algorithm updates, and even the removal keyword data hasn’t done any harm in real terms because it has noticeably led to a sea change in how people approach content strategy and the level of quality of content being produced continues to go up.

Google dominates the search landscape - in your opinion, how does this affect the sector?

I can see the argument that because Google dominates the sector it could be unfair advantage, but then again Google does a much better job of finding and sorting the needles of information we want from the humungous haystack that is the web than anyone else – so they dominate the sector for the valid reason that, they are the best at core search by miles.

This affects the sector by setting the benchmark for entry extremely high, but I think it will also drive innovation. Innovation has to come from tearing up the current search paradigm as we know it and trying not to compete with Google. For instance, Amazon with their Flow app show us a way that competitors can do very interesting and novel things with search that are completely different to what we are currently familiar with, and may well be a better indicator of the long term future of search.

Will wearables or the Internet of Things impact the search sector and if so, how you see that evolving?

A web connected toaster is fine, and so is an intelligent watch, but what I saw recently that I thought was really exciting was the work of bio-hacker Hannes Sjoblad, where he is embedding chips in people’s hands so that, once they were in place, you could work out ways in which they could be used. It’s about the interface, when we can find ways to hook devices up to ourselves and our thoughts it will make so much more data available to us and will revolutionise the way we search for and find information.

What will you be looking for while judging The Drum Search Awards?

Originality and attention to detail. I will be really happy if I read an entry and get blown away by how unique and well executed it is.

Find out more about The Drum Search Awards on the official homepage.

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