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by Jay Love

In my previous post, we explored how Slingshot SEO’s Research and Development department came into being, as well as peered inside the personalities and backgrounds of the three members that make up the team.

This week, we’re digging a little deeper to take a look at the numerous projects the R&D team completed in 2011 and plan to tackle in 2012. In fact, at the end I will make a plea for ideas for future projects. Please keep that in mind as you read more of my give and take with Evan Fishkin, the head of R&D at Slingshot SEO.

Jay: Why is it important for Slingshot SEO to have an R&D department?

Evan: There was actually a conversation I had with my mother about this when I told her we were starting an R&D team …

Jay: There’s nothing that slices through the fat to the bone faster than a conversation with Mom, right?

Evan: (laughs) Yes, exactly! Her response was, “OK, great … but what do you need an R&D team for?” Well, I honestly told her there were a lot of great ideas and projects that we wanted to do. In addition, Jeremy Dearringer (Slingshot co-founder) wanted us to spend real client time on certain projects, so creating an R&D department made sense. Which basically means this team is constantly thinking about all the dynamic issues of the problems that we are presented with.

Jay: Can you recall an earlier project or two?

Evan: One of the first problems we dealt with involved a client that had a massive amount of paid links. Almost 30 percent of the company’s profile, out of hundreds of thousands of links, was paid. The key questions were:

1. How do we get those taken down?
2. How do we contact Google to notify them that a new team has been applied to the situation and paid links are not going to be a part of our strategy?

We began our project by apologizing for them. So, one of the first things I did was work with an outside consultant to come up with a dynamic application, a script, to help generate emails to try to take down all of these paid links. About 80,000 emails later, we were able to remove nearly all the paid links from various sites. Ironically, some of these links were from very authoritative domains. The rest of our team truly had to bear down to make their SEO results successful after our tasks were completed.

From that experience, it was clear to us the R&D team is important for thought leadership and for dynamic problem solving at Slingshot SEO. It is also vital for our company culture. Our team is constantly on the forefront of this industry and looking to disseminate up and coming knowledge. We make sure that everyone at Slingshot SEO is thinking on the same time scale. If you’re thinking about a strategy that worked in 2009, you’re not working on a new strategy that might work in 2012.

Jay: My son performs legal work for Google, and I’ve often read about their culture and how every employee gets to apply 10 percent of his or her time to do personal R&D work on projects they have an interest in. I am impressed we’ve taken this beyond just individual projects and into company-wide R&D projects with an R&D department. There are not many companies our size with an R&D department. So, how do you decide what to focus on?

Evan: Aaron (Aders), Kevin (Bailey), and Jeremy (the co-founders) give us a lot of feedback and ideas. The first big project I worked on was the client success portal, which involved game theory, game mechanics, user experience, research and evaluation. We also determined project goals, requirements and processes.

Jay: So, how do you guys come up with projects?

Evan: We have a lot of brainstorming sessions and get a lot of input from the partners as well as other members of Slingshot’s leadership team on the projects we want to embark upon. The best thing we can do is to keep up with what the SEO community is talking about and always pay attention to what they’re up to.

We are open to the projects of everyone in the company, and they often lend a hand as well. Just this past week, Daniel Doezema, a senior web developer here at Slingshot, built a link intersect tool that helps with keyword analysis and competitive keyword research.

Jay: As you look back on 2011, what were the department’s most important achievements?

Evan: There were several.

1. Our first Click-through Rate Study release. It was the first time we, as a team, worked on something together. It made us think about how to release a thought leadership piece and how to interact with the community.

2. The Holiday SEO Checklist was a dynamic strategy we introduced to help the community.

3. The second version of the CTR study and the infographic that came along with it. It created some controversy because we included our opinions on the search engines; it was great because it got a lot of people talking about ranking factors and user behavior.

4. The Reverse Proxy Infographic helped a lot of people out and was a huge success.

Jay: What is the R&D team planning to focus on in 2012?

Evan: Our biggest goal is to become more analytics focused so we can show our clients the success they’ve received from their SEO campaigns. We are releasing a guide on reporting with Google Analytics, and are teaming up with Infinitive Analytics to release a guide to Omniture SiteCatalyst.

We’re always working towards the dream: Taking a client from Step One to the top of Page One in Google. The goal is to measure our clients’ efforts as well as help them rank in search engines while maintaining great content that is user-focused.

We’d also like to measure a predictive model for social engagement via any social media from a blog post to tweeting a link. Social is becoming the new connective graph for the Internet, so we’d like to stay ahead of the social graph curve, which enables us to win for our clients.

Jay: What was your most enjoyable moment from 2011?

Evan: Releasing the Click-through Rate Study together and engaging with the community. It gave us a moment of recognition and allowed us to make a name for ourselves.

Jay: Yes, the community engagement on the study was outstanding! If you had unlimited resources, how would you use it?

Evan: I would hire 7 to 14 people consisting of data analytic professionals and developers who can scrape for information and make it useful at the management level. The goal would be to create a metric-tracking search engine.

Jay: What’s the least known fact about the Slingshot SEO R&D team?

Evan: Well, my actual first name is “S” and I was actually raised at the SEOmoz offices. Dave brews his own beer at his house. Casey studies every night for actuarial exams and aspires to be an actuary someday.

Jay: Oh, so Casey can truly predict the future? (laughs)

Jay: Well, I for one am looking forward to what your team releases next year. Thank you for meeting with me!

Do any of you out there in the blog sphere have any project ideas for the Slingshot SEO Research and Development team? What do you think could be our next “viral” bit of research we could create and release? Feel free to share your ideas in the comment section below.

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