Video Deep Dive: “Reading the Industry” – Discussion Willys Devoll
Mike Blumenthal


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Mike: Hi. Welcome to Local U’s “Deep Dive in Local” with Mike and Mary. This week we, have Willys DeVoll, who many of you know from Local U, but many of you may not know. Why don’t you introduce yourself so that I don’t say anything untoward.

Willys: I wouldn’t expect you to, Mike.

Mike: You wouldn’t? Damn, I’ve got to …I need to work on that angle then. Damn, I’m getting soft in my old age.

Willys: Yeah, so as Mike mentioned my name is Willys. I currently run an agency called Will Digital, out here in California. And we’re working on basically improving digital presences for companies. We have two flanks there, working with SMBs on getting up to speed on the really basic stuff. So basic digital presence, getting listings online, making sure that information across the web is consistent and accessible. And then for more developed companies working on things like messaging strategies, fairly sophisticated content strategy and trying to bring people to the next level once they can clearly articulate what they do and why people should care. The reason I’m on the show, is for…or the reason I know Mike and Mary, at the very least, is I used to work at Google. I was there for a little bit over two years. I was on GMB the entire time, Google My Business.

Mike: What was your job there specifically?

Willys: I was a content strategist and a UX writer, by the time I left there, I was pretty much writing most or all of the words that weren’t marketing campaigns. So when we went to the UX design, making sure the way we express certain concepts and features made sense linguistically, making sure that the flow in GMB made sense, that it was Localizable to…I can’t remember how many languages we went to, I think 40 but a huge international audience. And then doing things like the Help Center to build out all the supporting documentation as well, and…

Mike: Did you have to learn Urdu?

Willys: Sorry.

Mike: Did you have to learn Urdu, or whatever?

Willys: No, no. Not that I recall anyway. Yeah. So basically building out how we talked about names and express things and words on GMB, as big as that might sounds, making sure that all made sense for people.

Mike: And for a number of years, you spoke at our Local U’s both the SMB events and the advanced event, and as I read your article, obviously, you had some learnings from that. Maybe you could summarize your experience there and your takeaways in terms of how people might take better advantage of Google when they do interact with them.

Willys: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So I spent most of that two years obviously not from day one, but pretty shortly after I started coming to Local U’s, and was the (quote/unquote)”Google rep” for quite a while there. I wrote this article reading, the industry which we’re talking about, , I’ve been thinking about how can someone on my side of the fence, the side of the fence I was on then and now other people are, express to people in the SEO and marketing communities, what’s the best way to deal with these companies? Because there’s very clearly a lot of frustration understandably from SEOs, marketers, with companies like Google. And I basically wanted to find the framework for, “Okay, where’s the middle ground here?” Because a lot of the times it’s just not as productive a conversation as it could be.

And there were people who were doing it really well. So I didn’t want to put this in the article because I didn’t want to play favorites, but I think both of you really understand what the best way is to take advantage of what Google knows and is willing to tell people. I think David Mihm is really good at this. Obviously, there are a lot of people in the Local U leadership that have a really good handle on this. But I think a lot of SEOs that don’t have as much experience dealing with industry reps, I wanted to spell out how that that might be more productive. So I have these four points in the article. I’ll just read them off here.

Mike: Sure.

Willys: The first was…this is a bit dramatic, but, secrets are cheap and silly. And this came from, in two years of talking, people were always asking for “secrets” just over and over and over again. And then the article I have a tweet from Joel, who’s obviously been on this podcast quite a bit. And who also spoke for Google and I put out a tweet earlier in the year about, , “What would you like to know from me, what I know from Google, and working in this field?” And Joel responded and asked for any new features and algorithm updates secrets as soon as possible. So this is obviously something that he had dealt with a lot, too. And I basically wanted to tell people, this is barking up the wrong tree. To the extent that there are secrets, they’re probably not nearly as interesting as you think they are. You’re probably not going to get them anyway. Even if you did get them they would be unsatisfying, so just don’t bother. It’s not as fascinating a conspiracy as people think.

Mike: But it is a conspiracy.

Willys: I’m out of practice, Mike. I can’t…It’s not a conspiracy. Yeah.

Mike: Oh, it’s not a conspiracy. Oh, that’s it.

Mary: So, can I ask, , what does Google tell their speakers that their role is when they go out into the community? I know they tell you don’t tell secrets. But what is your main job from Google’s point of view when you’re a Google speaker?

Willys: Yeah, I think it varies considerably, which I don’t mean to be an evasive answer. But I think one thing that was certainly true about Google, and I’m sure still is, I haven’t been gone for that long, is that it’s very divided up into different units. It’s been divided up into different products and then even within products, there’s a lot of teams and the cultures of each team I think vary quite a bit.

So I don’t know if there’s a great answer for every single person who comes from Google or from one of these big tech companies to a talk that they’re going to have a mandate. I knew for me, it was pretty unstructured. I had quite a bit of freedom to structure talks the way I thought was most useful, put together decks that I thought was most useful. There was obviously oversight on it, but by and large, there wasn’t a huge mandate to say XYZ. It was mostly don’t do anything stupid and, yeah, try to create value based on from this audience.” So…

Mike: What is considered stupid in this context?

Willys: I wrote about it in this piece I think, it’s related to this idea of the secrets that SEOs are looking for. I think, by and large, when you’re at one of these events, and representing a company, you just don’t want to put the people you work with in an uncomfortable position. And it normally means, before something is ready to ship and announced and ready to go saying things like, “We’re going to have feature X out by July 1st,” often just puts people in really bad positions. Because they’re just so many things that have to go right for a launch to happen at Google because the quality bar is so high, and there are just so many things that have to get checked off before it goes. That, getting up there and dramatically announcing something at a talk is often just putting all of the people who are back in Mountain View, working on something, trying to get it really good in a bad, bad place. That’s the biggest thing.

And then, another big thing…again, this isn’t as dramatic as people probably are hoping for, but just can’t say things that are inaccurate. And that’s always a challenge just because even a product like Google My Business, which in the grand scheme of things is a fairly small product compared to Google search, for example, there’s just a lot to know at any given time. And especially for Q&A people can have very specific questions about tiny little bugs or features that not many people use. And when you’re up there doing Q&A, you just have to know at least a little bit about all of it. And it’s often tempting to want to answer a question you might not have all the knowledge on. So resisting the temptation is important.

Mary: So I’ve found over the years dealing with Google, we’ve had Googlers involved with Local U since…Did we have one at the very first one Mike or…?

Mike: No, we did not. We had them shortly after, off and on for a couple years depending on who is in charge. And then finally, we formalized our relationship maybe with Joel I think. And then, subsequent to that, Jade. Actually it’s through…some of the formalization came through Cecilia, initially, and then that led into Joel and then Jade. So it was probably off and on for 2011, 2012, maybe part of 2013 and then we had a more formalized relationship, 2014 through the present.

Mary: So the thing that I’ve realized is to just talk to the Googler just as if they’re your colleagues. And they will tell you what they can tell you. And when they can’t tell you something, they’re usually pretty honest about that. And a lot of times, I think if you just listen carefully, you can get a lot of hints that they can’t tell you anything outright. But about things like from Google’s point of view, this is the way they think about this thing. And that’s the important information that I’ve gotten from Googlers over the years is, how is Google thinking about this? What do they see being important here? How about you Mike?

Mike: Well, first I want to be sure that Willys gives us those other two points or three points that we haven’t covered yet from his article and then I’ll ask a few questions. Did you get them all or…?

Willys: Oh, yeah, yeah, sure. I’ll just cover very briefly, the last three. The last is a perfect segue into what Mary just said, though. So this works nicely. The second point I had was structures trump tidbits. This was going off the secrets point. But, it would be virtually impossible to overstate the extent to which Google is data-driven. I know that’s a keyword around the industry. A lot of companies claim that. Google is overwhelmingly based on data. So to the extent that people…if they want to understand the moves that Google, and a lot of these other companies as well are going to make, it’s going to be a lot more valuable to move aside from gathering specific tidbits and “secrets” and move toward a more structured theoretical framework for understanding what’s going on.

The third point was trends matter a lot. So this is basically taking a more macro view of the industry and the social environment in which these companies work in. This sounds vague and potentially a little intellectual. But it really is important. I mean, there are a lot of places that do this well. I think “Bloomberg Business Week” does a really good job, Stratechery does an excellent job.

Mike: Is that how you pronounce Stratechery? I always say it’s Stratechery.

Willys: I think it’s Stratechery, yeah.

Mike: Yeah, it could be. What do I know?

Willys: I’m not the expert, but yeah, I don’t know. Well, we’ll have to spell.

Mary: But you’re in California. Mike’s in Buffalo, so.

Mike: A more literal reading of it.

Willys: Yeah, but this is really important. And, , time and time again, I think those macro trends as much as they might seem divorced from the, on-the-ground product launch stuff, they often really are predictive and informative.

And the last part and this is, very similar to what you were saying a minute ago Mary is, conversation matters most. So this is the point most related to actually talking to industry reps at these kinds of events. The other ones are more about doing the homework. But, yeah, my advice is basically the advice you just had, Mary, which is, if you want to learn the most from…let’s just say, Google for now, a Google speaker, a Google staffer, it’s really important to remember that these people, in almost every case, have proactively chosen to do this. They want to travel and they want to go to these events and talk to people and help as much as they can. It’s very rarely, as far as I know, on high mandates for a specific person to go give a specific message to a specific audience.

So if you’re going to work from that framework and say, “Look, here’s something I’ve been thinking about, like what do you think about that?” And you can phrase it in any number of ways but as opposed to just, like, , poking someone for something you think they might declassified to you, yeah, , talk to them as a colleague, prove that you’ve been thinking about this, too, that you’ve done the homework that you have a view, and see what they can tell you about it. Often this is more valuable than if you’ve got a discrete piece of information because, yeah, as you mentioned, Mary, you can learn about how people on the platform building side are thinking about the same issues. And that’s often much more informative than the discreet information that you might get otherwise.

Mike: So, part of the data-driven question I always have though is, large data is interesting and certainly provides information, but the reality of Local is, ultimately hyper Local, and doesn’t lend itself always to big data. An example of this was the research that Google published about how few spam results are seeing in their index? Well, yeah, that may be true across 125 million listings, but when you get into certain verticals, into certain markets, it could be, as they note in the article, 85%, and so visibility of spam listings.

So this big data doesn’t always fly in Local and sometimes it’s a false standard that as opposed…and also Google takes his position of relevance. And so, these underlying values influence everything they do. And so, they frequently don’t step back from those values and say, “Hey, maybe relevance isn’t the most important thing. Maybe accuracy or truth is.” Right? And we’re seeing some of these conversations now with, tapping with Facebook and to a lesser extent with Google, but some of these problems that you run into as a speaker, come from Google’s corporate attitude towards these things and the fact that they don’t reflect upon those things very…at least I don’t appear to, maybe somebody does someplace.

Willys: Yeah, I don’t, , necessarily disagree with that. I mean, , this article I wrote is certainly not supposed to be a defense of any particular Google policy or even the generals light guys per se, it’s more about, “All right, this is on a fairly high level how this company operates, so then how do we operate given that?” Like, this is probably not going to change at least in the near future and barring things that are completely out of our control. So I think it’s important to, at least, acknowledge just how reliant on data Google is and how interested they are in scale solutions to pretty much everything.

Mike: All right. And I guess then for me the takeaway of that is, what are the problems that causes so that you can understand when a question you’re asking Google, falls on the outside edges of the bell curve of a large data problem, which is frequently what you guys end up dealing with. Although historically, it was much worse in the early days of Local U, you guys would come, and literally audience would skewer you, or I would skewer you, somebody would skewer you, because your product sucks so badly. It sucks a lot less these days to its credit. But sometimes these big data solutions when improperly implemented cause huge problems for people.

But it is important to understand for consumers of information, for agencies, to understand that because you take this big data approach, that means that there will be issues around the edges of the big data. That big data can’t solve all these use cases around the edges and this even comes back to the conversation we had before about help, right? Google can’t solve all of the problems their product generates with help files or with even with forums. I mean, ultimately…and yet they’ve been very reticent to spend money on real people for that last mile of fixing those problems that their big data approach might generate. Thus, leaving you as the sacrificial lamb in the face of that wrath as it were.

Willys: Yeah, and…

Mary: And I think that you probably got on…I know that all of the other Googlers have probably gotten the sense by attending the small business Local U’s, how big of an impact something happening at Google can have on a small business, which means is having an effect on a real family of real people. And, to me, that is the biggest crime at Google is that they don’t seem to take that into account that these are real businesses that support families and communities and that some bug at Google is just a bug in Google to them. But it could be, I mean, it could be costing somebody their salary for a week or their income for a week if Google doesn’t get it fixed quickly.

Mike: Go ahead, Willys.

Willys: Yeah, no. , I think at the very least the people I worked at Google My Business were very aware of how important getting this right was for people all over the world. And how many people use the product and how important it is in terms of people finding businesses. I think people knew that each and every day. I think there are, …it’s just tremendously difficult to do it right at scale all the time. But I think that some of the seeds callousness SEO marketers and small businesses, which is completely warranted is less about individual decision-making and more about the difficulty of holding and maintaining a product to do all these things.

Mike: Maintaining it at scale with as little human input as possible, right? Again, there’s this conscious decision somewhere along the line that humans shouldn’t have to do this, any of this work. And clearly, there’s been proof over the years that the work frequently creates edge cases. And if you’re putting humans on the edge cases, you don’t but the machine probably can’t sell the edge cases, machines aren’t good enough yet. Some point they may be, but now they’re not. So this is true with help. It’s true with technical issues. So anyways, it causes conflict that people don’t understand. You guys are data-driven, you’re big data driven and so that creates an intrinsic problem in people understanding.

The other side of it, too, is Google sometimes doesn’t take full advantage of these opportunities. They centralize a lot of their PR messaging and try to leverage it through free articles. And, they could be using these opportunities to make minor announcements. They often don’t. So I think people might be satisfied, maybe they wouldn’t be, if you throw them a bone and said, “Oh, we have this product coming out in a couple of weeks,” know what I mean? And then you could say, “Okay, I gave you the bone. Now let’s talk about something substantial.” It would both get more press for Google during these events like happened at LSA several weeks ago, beginning of May, where they announced the agency dashboard and the preferred Partner Program. This was clearly a pre-announced when none of this stuff is ready, but they took the opportunity of using a public platform to do that, . And I think they could do that more which would deflect some of these criticisms. Or some of the, inanity…is that a good word? The mundane nature of the questions they ask you. So, I would have…

Willys: who to talk to you about that, Mike? It’s out of my hands now.

Mike: True, but they don’t listen to me that much, . After 10 years, I get a little tired of saying it, too, just as a note.

Mary: I guess somebody is listening.

Willys: I will say about the opportunity at these events and also about the edge cases that aren’t fixed systemically. , again, it’s very…and I don’t think people realize this, because I think that people assume that the talk program is much more monolithic, that, in fact, is. But if there’s a Google staff at an event that you go to, there’s a very, very, very good chance that person was quite proactive in making that appearance. And it’s very unlikely that, that person upon going through the effort to get the approval, potentially get the budget, whatever it may be, and raise their hand to go, that they are going to categorically not wanting to help people.

Mike: No, we’ve had numerous cases of Google solving problems in near real time by paying attention during these events, time and time. And again, Woman Shelter was showing publicly and somebody raised their hand in the event in Cleveland and they fixed it right away. It was nice and oftentimes people who wait bring these edge case events, which may be can’t be fixed right away, but they do get attended to. I think it’s one of the big advantages of having Google in the field. They get to hear about some of these edge cases and have always been…at least the speakers that have spoken with us, have always take…if they couldn’t solve the problem but anyway they always took it back and tried to fix it. That’s one of the huge benefits of having Google out there.

I think there could be more. All I’m saying is I think there could be more public support for the their exposure and their willingness to take the risk. It’s not a low risk thing behind the stage in front of 100, 200 people and having potentially impacted their business. It’s a very high risk for a speaker to do it. And interesting to me, all the speakers that have come, I’ve seen them literally grow up in front of my eyes, learning to become comfortable in that context where you don’t have control over these outcomes, but you do want to help. And I could see we are being attacked in that context, might hurt a little bit, whether it’s by me or by the audience, which fortunately because the product has improved at least compared to what it was 2008 through 2015 has improved dramatically. And that has made…I think the job of being in the front of face somewhat easier. I don’t know.

Willys: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And, the other thing, I think it’s helpful for people to remember. And, again, this is less a defense than…, keeping this in mind, I think leads to more productive conversations, getting up on a stage, even if it’s a relatively small audience, but something like Local U, which is a fairly large audience representing what a Fortune Five company or something, the downside risk is very high, particularly for people who are often who are rarely, vice presidents or, these are not C level executives, even the C level executives, I’m sure get nervous about it, too. Because, , anything you say can often willingly be misconstrued by a particular person who’s live tweeting the event and wants a headline or wants something for their blog and…

Mike: I remember once. I think it was maybe MOZ Local, somebody was criticized for…maybe it was Jade prior to your visit there was criticized for asking people not to tweet her talk. It was a very simple request that reflected that reality that inadvertent misunderstandings can have widespread impact, not just across Google, but can impact her livelihood and her wellbeing as well. And I thought it was bizarre that somebody would object to not talking about what was being said.

Willys: Yeah. The tweets you get are often challenging to read, if we can put it that way, after getting one of these talks. So, yeah, I think understanding where these people are coming from that they are very actively interested in helping, that they’re probably going to get user feedback and bring it back to the products. Something I think people underestimate, giving a feature recommendation or an idea to someone who works at a company like Google, you may not see it in the product six weeks later, because it’s just never going to work that way. But Google really takes that feedback into account, 100%.

Mary: I know, we have seen with the Local U’s speakers. We’ve seen things happen, like you say, it doesn’t happen quickly but once they understand that there really is a problem that maybe they should try to fix, we do see things getting fixed and changes being made. And I can point to some of them that are probably as a direct result of speakers coming to Local U and talking to small businesses.

Willys: Yeah.

Mike: Well, with that, I just want to thank you for joining us, Willys. I really appreciate you taking the time. We wish you success with your marketing enterprise. I know, in several cases we’ve used you for a couple projects and it’s been a pleasure. It’s pleasure reconnecting with you after your Google days as well. So thank you very much for joining us. Anything else to add, Mary?

Mary: Well, this was a discussion based on an article that Willys has put on his blog. So we’ll give you the link to that with the Deep Dive.

Mike: All right, thanks. Thank you both for joining us. We’ll talk to you next week.

Willys: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Mary: Thanks, Willys. Bye, bye.

Willys: Bye.

Willy’s article:

Reading the Industry

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