Q&A: Vanessa Fox on Facebook, Google and the changing world of search

During last week’s GeekWire podcast, Todd Bishop and John Cook had the opportunity to chat with search industry veteran and startup entrepreneur Vanessa Fox, a former Google employee who was responsible for building Google Webmaster Central.

Vanessa Fox

Fox now runs her own company called Nine By Blue, a startup that aims to help online publishers and businesses understand how search engines are interacting with their websites.

As if that’s not enough, Fox has also written a search engine guide for businesses  — a book called “Marketing in the Age of Google.”

If you missed the show, or just prefer text, continued reading for edited excerpts from the conversation, covering topics including Facebook’s new Graph Search, Google’s evolution, Fox’s startup, her favorite iPhone app, and much more.

Todd Bishop: What does this Graph Search do to the search landscape? 

Fox: When you hear people say they’re taking on Google, or they’re a new competitor to Google, it’s really not that at all. The type of search that they’re providing is really a new kind of search. For a long time we would have wanted to do these types of searches. If Bing and Facebook are smart, they would do a much more integrated search. … But I don’t think we’re quite there yet with Graph Search.

It just enables you to search over the information that’s already in your Facebook account. Over all the photos that your friends have posted, and that type of thing. But if you really think about what people use search engines for, it’s really to accomplish a task of some kind, normall. For that type of thing, people are still going to go to Google — that’s just the habit that they have. We’re sort of on autopilot.

Facebook’s new Graph Search function

We don’t think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go to Facebook and search for TVs because people I know have talked about TVs.’ We may get there eventually, but right now that’s just not our automatic response.

With some sites, they’ve been able to get people to go to them directly. But most people are still going to Google and then from there, going to Yelp or Trip Advisor. And in some ways, the Facebook search has a little bit of an obstacle. They can’t really be like a Yelp or Trip Advisor, because it isn’t public. You can only search when you’re logged in. At least with Yelp, if you did a Google search for restaurants in Chicago, that public page would come up with the reviews. Facebook won’t have that opportunity.

This is why I think there may be some possibilities with Bing. With Bing, since they already have that Facebook integration, if you’re logged into Facebook, then you can start to get some of that logged-in data in your Bing results. Of course they have to get people to use Bing more to make that happen, but that’s where it might actually work.

Bishop: To some extent, it’s a philosophical question about whether the front door, or the doormat to the web is search or social.

Cook: Did you just call Bing the doormat?

Bishop: Whether the entry point to the web is search or social. How do you see that shaking out over the next few years?

Fox: It could be that we have both. If you think back to Yahoo when they were at the height of popularity, they were 25 percent of people’s default home page on their browsers, yet they never became the dominant search engine. You would think, ‘It’s already the home page, why wouldn’t people search from there?’ But they would actively leave their Yahoo home page to go to Google.

One thing that starts to disrupt that is a different kind of device. I get my new phone and it doesn’t have the same search button I’m used to; there’s an opportunity to introduce a new habit with a new kind of device. A search is really all about the distribution; where can you get that search box distributed?

Bishop: What’s the idea behind your new startup?

Fox: I started this company a little bit accidentally. I spent all this time building up this product to help site owners understand search better, because for all these years, advertisers got a lot of information and a lot of tools, but people who didn’t advertise — and just cared about regular search — there was really no information. It was this black box. … So when I left Google, of course, all of these people are asking me for help, and I started to realize, ‘Hey, we could really use more tools and information beyond what I was able to do at Google.’ It kind of grew organically, and sort of snowballed, so now we have the tools and education, and we do workshops and training, both on the technical side and on the strategy side.

Bishop: So your tools and your technologies and your advice help people who are publishing websites understand how the search engines are interacting with them, how they’re perceiving their sites, and ultimately ranking them for the rest of us to see?

Fox: Exactly, right. So both on the technical side —how are the search engines able to crawl and extract information from the sites — and how are audiences interacting with your sites. A better understanding of what people are searching for, what their behaviors are, what they really want so you can make sure you’re actually solving their problems, and having information that engages them.

Bishop: It speaks to the power of the search engine, because this can make or break businesses, can’t it?

Fox: It can, absolutely. It is the case that search has become the entry point of the web.

Bishop: Basically, you’re helping these sites try and get up higher in the rankings?

Fox: Right, what I’m trying to do is provide something beyond the regular search engine optimization that people normally get — something that’s more integrated into web development, product marketing, product development — really understanding your customers better.

Bishop: Why is it that sites have to worry so much about teaching Google that they’re good, or at least that they should be ranked higher? Why isn’t this whole field more pure?

Fox: Google is trying to get it to be that way. If you talk to Google, they say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.’ Their sole focus is to really find the good stuff and weed out the bad stuff. It takes some time because this is how technology works. …  A big thing that some sites will do is they’ll think that this one thing is super important, so they’ll have all this content about it, but really, their audience is looking for something else that’s just slightly off. And we can get so ingrained in an organization that we forget to step outside to see how our audiences see things. So a lot of it is really just about that — taking a step back to understand what your customers want.

Cook: So how do you do that? Or how do you tell your customers to do that?

Fox: I have a lot people that ask me how to get their customers to do the searches better. The thing is, there’s a lot of data available on what people search for. The search engines make it available for free. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t look at that. You can see what people care about the most, what they search for the most, what words they use. So that’s really the first thing.

Bishop: What do you think of Google+? Is it going to be around in two or three years?

Fox: I think it’s going to be around just because Google is very tenacious about it. It goes back to that habit thing. At this point we’re just used to Facebook. I haven’t seen a lot of traction, but it’s happening little by little.

Cook: So they might be in it for the long haul, but what’s it actually going to take for them to actually be meaningful in this industry?

Fox: They’ve tried several things that I don’t think have worked yet. And you’ve seen a lot of experiments with the actual search results page because it’s still the case that people just go to the Google.com search engine. So now they’re trying all of these wats to get you involved with Google+ right from the search page. Maybe that will take off. They now have the bar at the top, and a red light that flashes at you. They’re trying all kinds of craziness. So I think they’re just going to keep trying stuff.

Bishop: As an ex-Googler, what are your perspectives on Google as a culture and how they compare to Microsoft?

Fox: Google has changed quite a bit since I worked there. I’ve been gone for 5-and-a-half years now, so it’s huge compared to when I was there. When I launched Webmaster Central … there was no one around to tell me not to do it. I don’t know if that would be possible today. It still isn’t as structured as a Microsoft. I think some of the Googlers there that complain a little bit haven’t worked anywhere else, so they don’t realize they still have it pretty good. Things are still pretty good at Google.

Bishop: When you were at Google, they gave you access to a life coach?

Fox: Yes, every week, you’d go see this life coach. We did this retreat where we learned about ourselves. It’s a hard life. [But] it’s not a 9-5 job. And the thing is that the kinds of people they hire still are the overachievers, so the people that really want to be competitive [are] going to be there anyway. It’s just that kind of environment.

Previously on GeekWire: GeekWire Podcast: Can Facebook really challenge Google in online search?

Reach Lily Katz at lily@geekwire.com or on Twitter @LilyKatz