The Friday Interview: Michael Heraghty, Mediajunk

7 May 2004

Michael Heraghty is what you would call a web pioneer. In the early Nineties he published an online version of The Buzz magazine before moving to Vision Consulting where he worked on major web projects. He has also worked for the Halifax Group and for Warner Bros Music. In 2002 he set up Mediajunk, of which he is managing director. Based in Galway, Mediajunk is a full-service internet consultancy.

Heraghty was introduced to the internet in the early 1990s by some friends at Skynet, a computer society based in the University of Limerick. At the time, he recalls, the entire web could be represented by a map. Since then he has made it his business to keep up with the technology and the changes in the internet. “Half my working day is devoted to keeping up with new trends, experimenting and getting a feel for the web,” he says.

One of his areas of expertise is search engines and how they work and he has just released an e-book on the topic. Website Findability contains everything he knows about search engine optimisation. “I could have done with such a book myself a few years back, but I had to teach myself bit by bit and I made a lot of mistakes along the way,” he says. “But I definitely saw that ‘findability’ was becoming more and more of an issue among those who had websites – particularly as searching is becoming more and more the default way that users approach the internet. We used to talk about people ‘surfing’ the net. I don’t think they do that anymore. I think they ‘search’ the net.”

Heraghty considers Google’s page rank technology to be one of the most significant breakthroughs of recent years. “The technology was developed in Stanford in 1998 and it has finally come through and proved its worth today and reshaped the way internet searches are conducted.”

According to Heraghty, Google has also changed the nature of marketing on the web. Banner advertising didn’t work, he says, because it was based on old media and traditional marketing techniques, which don’t work on the internet. Search-based marketing however can work. This is leading to a resurgence of e-commerce but in a different form to that originally envisaged in the 1990s.

“The previous e-commerce model was ‘build a website and they will come,'” he says. “It didn’t work then and it’s not going to work now. E-commerce is making a comeback in the sense that people are realising that if you use search-based marketing to target people who want to buy the things you sell and if you embrace the web as a medium and do it the ‘Web way’ then yes, you can sell products. I think it is making a comeback because we better understand how the internet works in its own right and how users behave online. But I don’t think that online sites will ever replace bricks and mortar.”

The first thing a company needs to do when building a Website is to think about the site’s objectives, its target audience and the brand. It is also vitally important that people find your site. That means working out what search terms they will use to find they types of product you want to sell. “You have to have a vision for your site as to where it is going to be relevant and what type of information and inquiries is it going to be relevant to because the Web is all about people looking for information. So what subset of all people looking for information is your site going to appeal to and of those, are they the kind of people you want to have a conversation with? So the strategy really is about that. It’s about embracing the web as a medium and not bringing old marketing concepts to it.”

One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is to focus on the similarities between the web and other media and ignore the differences. “The single biggest difference between the web and other media is the concept of hyperlinks,” says Heraghty. “It’s a very simply concept but very powerful. A single word can be linked to a whole other cyber community and to extend that concept the fact that communities do exist on the web and relationships exist is the basis of search technology and the basis of user behaviour. Who your site is connected to and what your site is connected to are very, very important.”

Heraghty points out that that the web is also distinguished from old media by the fact that a web page is a piece of software, not a piece of paper. “A user is interacting with a piece of software and so we have to be sure the page they view is usable. So usability is a very important part of the user experience.”

Unfortunately, usability is one of the areas where Irish websites fall down. “The majority of Irish sites have usability problems. The use of graphics to display text is a typical example – search engines can’t read text that is rendered as an image. It’s no coincidence that Google’s own site uses graphics very sparingly. To improve their performance in search engine results, Irish companies first must improve the usability of their websites. Search engines reward websites that are usable.

“People also have to start seeing websites as living organic things and not as static things like a brochure that is done and finished. A website has to be pruned and watered and fed and nurtured and sometimes you have to cut off a dead bit.”

By David Stewart

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