Interview with SEO’s Google Patent Watcher, Bill Slawski

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Bill Slawski and I share a path that’s very familiar for many SEOs. We both started out pursuing a completely different profession, but through happenstance found ourselves building, optimizing and marketing sites.

I’ve always been drawn towards Bill’s writings, because he’s one of the only people who patiently monitors and studies Google patents. He’s also one of the only people who knows how to comprehend and explain what those patents may or may not mean for SEO.

In this interview, find out how Bill made the transition to SEO and he talks about the Google patent that intrigues him the most.

How did you make the transition from law school to SEO?

When I made the decision to go to law school, my intent wasn’t to become an SEO, but it ended up playing a role in the path that brought me there. There are a lot of similarities in the professions that might not be evident on their faces. Lawyers are knowledge workers, and a lot of the strategies involved in what they do involve a considerable amount of research into earlier cases, checking citations involving relevant statutes and legal decisions, and persuading juries and/or judges into looking at past decisions to try to influence them to see things from a certain perspective.

After I graduated from law school, I started working as an intern to the staff attorney at the highest level trial court in the state I was in, and I was then asked to consider joining the court as a legal administrator. It provided me with a chance to experience courts from a vantage point that many don’t get the chance to experience. I watched as many of my friends from law school went on to join law firms or start solo practices and didn’t seem to enjoy doing what they were doing. On the other hand, I found myself enjoying working to try to help improve the legal system from the inside.

I had some friends who taught me how to build a computer of my own, and that was something I found I liked a lot. People around the court started noticing that when they had a computer problem, it was often something that I could help them fix much quicker than the judicial computer support personnel who worked for the court. When a position came up in the court to focus upon technical issues, I had some people from the court leave copies of the job opening with me. It began with providing computer support for people, and then in working on adding new technology within the court itself. This included adding handicap accessibility features to courtroom proceedings such as real-time transcription of testimony and adding monitors on judicial benches. I worked on introducing electronic document filing to the court, setting up barcode systems for tracking our files, upgrading computers from dumb terminals to personal computers, addressing Y2K issues, and the acquisition of a state wide case management system for all of the courts in the state.

I represented the court on a statewide basis on issues involving setting up a closer integration of information between the state police criminal history computer system and the court’s case management system, sex offender registration and processing, and courtroom sentencing for drug cases including referrals to drug treatment centers. I created databases for registration and tracking of carrying concealed weapons petitions and for fictitious names for businesses. I worked on training programs and training for court employees on computers and technology.

While I was working for the courts, I helped a couple of friends start an incorporation business in Delaware, and set up most of a website for them. I continued to promote the site, and helped build it into a successful company by learning about search engines as they came online, and doing SEO for them. I joined an online forum, and became a moderator and then administrator at the forum that ended up becoming Cre8asiteforums. The forum was a great experience, and I had a chance to work with people like Ammon Johns, Jill Whalen, Rand Fiskin, and many others, including a couple who went on to become Google Webmaster Evangelists. It was a great learning experience. When Loren Baker, a member of the forums, asked if I knew of someone who might consider joining an agency he worked at in 2004, I suggested that it was something I might want to do. I applied for the position, and left the courts. That was my transition from law school to SEO.

You’ve become somewhat of a Google patent watchdog. Was that intentional or something you stumbled into?

I came across a patent that described how Google might look at geographic signals on a website and use those to help rank businesses better in search results shown in their organic results. This was before Google Maps was something Google was working on. I made some changes to the sites I was working on (back when I was still at the court), and those changes made a big difference. As a forum administrator, I shared a lot of the things I was learning through patents.

After a trip to SES in New York in 2005, Loren and I started planning a free conference on SEO in Havre de Grace, Maryland. The idea was to create something like a Barcamp – a free conference where people attending could also present, could stay at local B&Bs, and would be much more affordable than one of the SEO conferences that were around. I set up SEO by the Sea on WordPress to promote it. It got a lot of positive press from people like Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Watch and Aaron Wall at and many others (thanks to you all!), and after the event, I found myself with a blog that I could keep on writing at. I started writing posts about things like patents and papers from the search engines, and those posts received a lot of positive attention within the search community.

Patents usually don’t become public until months or years after they’ve been submitted and approved. In addition, the existence of a patent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being used by the creator. Keeping that in mind, how should SEOs approach the patents you discuss on your blog?

I try to approach patents from a business analysis perspective – not so much to learn about and understand and reverse engineer processes that they discuss in those, but rather to learn about the assumptions that they make about the Web, search, and searchers. A good patent filing doesn’t tell you how a search engine might do something as much as it might give you questions to ask yourself about what you see happening at a search engine, things to test and experiment with, and insights about search from the perspective of search engineers.

Some patents provide a history of the evolution of search from a view that you might not otherwise be able to get. For example, I learned recently that the knowledge base behind Metaweb (acquired by Google) was originally started by a company called Applied Minds, which was founded by a couple of ex-Disney and Hollywood insiders, one of whom had worked on movies such as Altered States and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

I’d definitely recommend that people click through the links in my blog posts to the patent filings themselves, and try to make sense of those on their own. Sometimes patent applications get published before the things they are about are added to Google. Sometimes those things are added the same week they might be published, and mentioned often on the same week at one of the Google Blogs. Sometimes things discussed in patents might not be developed at all, possibly based upon a business decision or because Google doesn’t have the technology to implement them. Sometimes patents are granted years after they might be implemented at Google, but I still find a lot of value in those.

For example, we knew for certain that Google wasn’t giving as much PageRank value to each link that they found on a page, and people like Matt Cutts had been telling us that for a few years, but it wasn’t until I came across a patent that I dubbed The Reasonable Surfer patent that I had some idea of how Google might decide how much PageRank a link might or might not send along to a linked-to page.

The descriptions in a patent are intended to give a reader an idea of how an invention is supposed to work, but they aren’t intended as a roadmap that anyone can follow to reproduce the invention, and there are often a lot of options included that start off with a phrase such as, “In an alternative implementation…”

Matt Cutts warned people in a video last year to not take a patent as proof that Google is doing something currently, or at all. I think that’s good advice. But I still think there’s a lot of value to using patents to learn about possibilities, and to gain some insights that may not be publicly disclosed anywhere else.

Which Google patent has caught your attention recently?

There was one on something I referred to as “Search Entities,” which described how Google might be tracking search queries, query sessions, documents showing up in search results, documents clicked on in search results, links and anchor text that appear on those documents, words that tend to co-occur in search results (or in query sessions) for specific queries, geographic locations of searchers performing specific searches, and similar “entities,” to calculate probabilities that if a certain person performs a specific query, they might be best satisfied by specific documents in response to their search.

This deep level of analysis of search entities and calculation of probabilities is likely the underlying basis for things like deciding what related searches might be displayed in Knowledge Graph results for a certain entity, the contextual interpretations of re-written queries under Hummingbird, and a lot of the natural language interpretation of things like what businesses might be “known for” in Google Maps displays, and how some search results might be based upon themes or concepts in queries rather than the keywords they use.

The patent is “Search entity transition matrix and applications of the transition matrix” (US patent 8,515,975), which I wrote about in the post Relationships between Search Entities.

Based on where you think Google is taking its search algorithm, what are the most important signals SEOs should focus on in 2014?

To make what could be a really long answer short, I would suggest focusing upon a lot of the same things that Google might be – for the informational or situational need that you are trying to meet with a page (or video or news items or image, etc.), what would a searcher be most satisfied with as a result?

Does your page answer the questions that searchers might have? Does it provide them with additional resources that they might find value in? Is it a good experience in terms of things like how much time they might spend on that page?

You recently joined Go Fish Digital as Director of Search Marketing. Tell us a little bit about what Go Fish Digital does and your role there.

Go Fish Digital provides SEO services with clients to help them gain visibility on the Web and in search results for the services and/or products they offer, to enable people interested in those to find them. We also help people who might be concerned about their reputations online manage those in positive ways.

When you’re not working or reading patents, what do you do for fun?

I really like exploring small towns, local history, and nature, often with a camera in my hands. It’s fascinating going to a place like Fredericksburg, Virginia, and finding a mural painted on a side street showing the history of potters in the town, painted sometime in the ’40s or ’50s. It’s a window to a different time.

6 Responses to “Interview with SEO’s Google Patent Watcher, Bill Slawski”

  1. Great interview Jon, one of the best for Bill I’ve ever seen. I never knew Bill was on track to be a lawyer, but it makes perfect sense with all his patent knowledge.

    Keep more stuff like this flowing, great read.

  2. Bill is probably the most important person in SEO to me. Not only because he digs deep down into search engines under the hood, and shares his findings, but also because he inspired me to take on the same path. I want to know how search engines work, and I’m always hungry for more knowledge. Now my next goal is to meet Bill and thank him in person, hopefully around a beer or two.

    Thank you Bill and keep it up !

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thanks. Jon asked some great questions, and I tried to set away enough time to do them justice.

    I do wonder if I would have ever gone into SEO if I didn’t go to law school, and I’m not sure that I would have. Funny thing about that though is that I never looked at any patents while in law school – that was a field of law that my school didn’t offer any courses in.

  4. Hi Laurent

    Thanks – I take that as a very high compliment. Curiosity definitely inspires a lot of the research that I do – I want to know the answers to a lot of questions, and the further I dig, the more questions I end up with. Steve Levy needs to write a sequel to “In the Plex.”

    A beer would be great.