Deft CEO: the State of SEO and Search Advertising

Deft CEO: the State of SEO and Search Advertising

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The team at Deft has some controversial takes on the state of SEO and search advertising. From the beginning, the company was founded on the belief that e-commerce is the most over-SEO’d and over-advertised search category — and the problem is only getting worse, as both Amazon and Google continue to make money by keeping consumers on their pages for longer, showing more and more ads along the way.

When he set out to build Deft, Zach Hudson pledged to do things differently.

For starters, Deft uses different metrics than typical search engines or e-commerce companies. Rather than tracking time spent on site, Deft’s founders are focused almost exclusively on conversion rate. Hudson and his fellow co-founders they consider it a win if a user can get in, find what they’re looking for, and get out in as little time as possible.

Street Fight recently had the opportunity to catch up with Hudson to get his take on why e-commerce search is broken, how we got here in the first place, and what his company is doing to turn things around. 

Q. What can you tell me about Deft’s origin story and how you got involved on the team? 

A. The idea for Deft started back in 2019 when our co-founder Alex Gunnarson was looking for a gray couch with wood trim on the bottom, in a mid-century style, for under $800. It took him 30 hours to find it, scrolling through various sites and opening hundreds of tabs. He felt limited by today’s search engines and e-commerce sites, so like the crazy engineer that he is, he started building his own search engine to solve the problem. 

Meanwhile, I was building another company in the e-commerce space. It was similar to Yelp, but for product reviews. I’ve worked in e-commerce for over a decade and I was disillusioned with the marketing tactics companies used, so my goal was to bring authenticity and honesty back to shoppers. 

Alex and I bumped into each other at a startup event. I saw my vision for authenticity encapsulated in Alex’s vision for better search, so we started working together on Deft. Along the way, we met a ton of other people just like Alex and I, who were frustrated with online shopping. 

Today, the average shopper spends 15 hours, across 12 different websites, over 79 days trying to decide on a purchase. And the problem is only getting worse. Over the past four years, the amount of time it takes to make a purchase decision online has increased by nine days across categories.

Q. Where do you see Deft fitting into the broader e-commerce market, and who do you see as your biggest competitors? 

A. We want to be the place consumers start their shopping journey. Right now, those positions are held by Amazon and Google. Aside from those two players, there are a lot of e-commerce platforms adding LLMs to their existing search and calling it a level-up, but it only compounds the pain points of traditional ecommerce. 

You can’t shortcut your way to better search by adding an “intuition” layer on top of bad data. As a result, we don’t see LLM wrappers as competition. However, we do see LLMs as an important piece of the puzzle, not only for enabling our business, but also for generating further demand for it.

Q. Companies like Google and Amazon have a huge advantage in terms of market share. How do you see Deft competing? 

A. While Amazon and Google are funded by brands paying to get in front of consumers, Deft is ad-free, because we believe that ads yield short-term gain, but long-term customer erosion. As Larry and Sergey say, “advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” 

The second major difference is how our search engine works. Because of our proprietary technology, Deft understands significantly more about each listing in our results and it’s not SEO-gameable. As a user, that means you don’t have to limit yourself when searching with us. You can describe exactly what you’re looking for with natural language, images, or both. 

At Deft, we’re aligning ourselves with the customer instead of the brand. Trust is paramount when spending money online. It’s incredibly hard to build, and very easy to lose. This is a search engine built for you, not to sell you something, and that’s very hard for our established competitors to replicate.

Q. I read that Deft’s conversion rate is 5x the industry norm. Can you give me a little more background on this, and specifically why you view conversion rates as being such an important metric? 

A. Conversion rate is arguably the most important metric in the e-commerce world. It means how many people who see the product versus how many are buying it. Ours is 5x the e-commerce average. 

By giving people what they want and the tools they need to make a decision, people are more likely to buy. Most search engines focus on things like time on site or number of searches. Their goal is to keep you scrolling to see more ads and to generate more revenue from marketers. Our approach is the exact opposite. If we can serve you the correct result at the top of the list on the first try, that’s a huge win. That’s why the conversion rate is our north star.

Q. When you say that e-commerce is the most over-SEO’d and over-advertised search category, what does that mean? 

A. In e-commerce specifically, because there is an incentive to sell a product, it’s been so over-SEO’d and over-advertised that some searches on Google and Amazon are essentially worthless. For example, when you search “pet-friendly sectional” on Amazon or Google you generally get products [that aren’t] sectionals, but advertisers, marketers, and store owners buy the term “pet- friendly” or slam the keyword into the title. Imagine this multiplied by an army of LLMs generating equally nonsensical or even misleading content. We’ve built tools to extract clean e-commerce data, which becomes increasingly valuable in a post-LLM world. 

Q. Where is Deft at right now, in terms of business growth, and how does that compare to where you’d like to see the company in five years? 

A. Our goal is 50k or more monthly active users in Q4. In the next three years, we should be at 1 million monthly active users. In terms of the product, our ambition is to be anywhere shopping happens. We’re a web app today, but we have a browser extension in the works so that you can use Deft search on any e-commerce site, like Honey, but for search. 

Longer term, we’re releasing e-commerce plugins and an API so that Deft becomes the default way you search and research products online. 

In terms of categories, we started in furniture and home decor, where we currently have one of the largest home goods catalogs online. However, over the next few years we’ll be moving into consumer electronics, apparel, and eventually all categories, similar to how Amazon started with books then moved onto CDs.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.