Life after SEW for Danny Sullivan

First published August 30, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This Tuesday, a bomb dropped on the search marketing community. It started, as so many stories do now online, with a simple blog post. After 10 years, Danny Sullivan was leaving Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Watch. Jaws could be heard dropping around the world. Danny is synonymous with both the shows and the site. And ten years is an eternity in this biz. We just always assumed that Danny’s involvement with the two franchises was like bedrock, so permanent you take it for granted. There were others involved–many others–all integral to the success, but make no mistake, this was Danny’s gig. The thought of SEW and SES without Danny just didn’t jive. Within hours, there was a litany of tributes to Danny Sullivan on his blog. It was almost as if a head of state had passed on. We collectively caught our breath and wondered what was next.

By the time you read this, this will no doubt be old news, so I won’t go into the details or reasons of the departure. I’m not really privy to them anyway. What I would like to do instead is look at some of the back history of how Search Engine Watch began, because I think it’s a great Internet story.

A Webmaster’s Guide To Search

One of the things that is wonderful about the Web is how it evens the playing field and creates opportunity. If you’re smart, if you’re a good communicator, and if you’re passionate about something, you can pick your niche and carve out your own slice of celebrity. Danny was all three. In 1996, Danny Sullivan’s notoriety probably didn’t extend much beyond his family and friends, but that was soon to change.

In 1995, Danny left journalism behind to go into Web development. Ironically, that was about the same time I left traditional advertising behind to focus on the Web. Soon, for both of us, we encountered the inevitability of search engines. As sites were developed, Danny recognized the importance of search engines as a traffic source and began experimenting to achieve higher rankings. For four months in 1996, he tweaked and tested codes, achieving some success, and published his findings online, collectively called “A Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines”. In the next year, it was rebranded Search Engine Watch and started to take up more and more of Danny’s time. It soon became the reference site for a number of nascent search engine optimizers (myself included) and became Danny’s full-time gig, supported by a handful of subscribers. At the end of 1997, it was purchased by Mecklermedia and Danny continued as editor.

The launch of SES

Search Engine Strategies launched from the base of support built by the site. The first show was in November, 1999 in San Francisco. The promo page is still live, if you’re interested. Since then, the show has grown from a few hundred attendees and a handful of exhibitors to attendance in the thousands and a jammed exhibit hall. As I wrote just a few weeks ago, it is the must-see search event.

In the intervening years, Danny has chronicled the birth and growth of an industry. Through the past 10 years, search engines have come and gone, but Danny Sullivan was always there, making sense of an occasionally nonsensical business. He has been the constant. Like I said, he’s bedrock. He’s also a search celebrity, one of the best known names and faces in a region of the online world that has since become a focal point of global interest. You want to know about search? Ask Danny. Major newspapers, magazines and TV networks beat a path to his door. When John Battelle decided to chronicle the history of search for his book, The Search, a long visit with Danny was a no-brainer, and John makes his debt to Danny very clear in the foreword.

The creation of a community

But Danny had no special education, or credentials to become the pre-eminent expert on search marketing. He has a degree, but there’s no Ph.D. of Search. He simply had a passion, a curiosity and a knack for communicating what he found. The Web gave him a voice, and he found his audience. Through the past 10 years, he has never failed that audience. Almost single-handedly, he opened the communication lines between the search engines and Webmasters and helped to create the community that now exists. From his beginning efforts, people like Brett Tabke and Matt Cutts have taken up the torch and continued to keep the communication flowing. Danny Sullivan has taken on the stewardship of what he began, continuing to nurture the SEM community, and there are many who are in his debt.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t know the details of the split between Danny and Incisive Media, and it’s not appropriate that I comment on them. I don’t know what will happen with Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Watch. But I know that Danny’s passion for search will continue, and it will resurface soon. In a very interesting way, Danny Sullivan and the Internet grew up together, and each has helped in the development of the other. It is a true symbiotic relationship, but in this case, we’ve all benefited, and I hope we all will continue to do so.

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