10 Years as an SEO and Search Marketer (Subtitle: Giving a Sh*t)
As of last Saturday, August 20th, I have been in the SEO space for 10 years.
Before writing this post, I asked some folks what they would like to read. The responses fell across the board, from how things have changed in the past 10 years, to wanting to hear parts of my own story. I've decided to write this post and start with the story of how I got started in Search. Simultaneously managing, at one point, over 1,400 SEO clients in 2004 might deserve an answer to "how do you get there?" That answer will then (if I'm doing this well) provide the context for my own observations of how things have changed and where they're going.
I'm long-winded, and this post is no exception. If you're a frequent tl;dr....er, skip this one.
Otherwise, I hope you enjoy it.
From Raves to SEO Sales to SEOing
On August 20, 2001, I was hired by an SEO company into their sales department. I had just moved to Raleigh, NC, fresh from Austin following a failed club business. (We held warehouse parties in 2000 and 2001. If you're interested, you can read more here.)
After two weeks of cold-calling, I think that everyone realized a nerdy, counter-cultured, 20 year old introvert with multiple piercings wasn't going to perform well in corporate sales. They recalled from my interviews that I "had once built a website," and I was transitioned over to the customer service/implementation team.
I use the term "team," lightly.
You see, there were about 30-35 people in the company at that point. About 20 were in sales, a handful of execs, a handful of developers and designers, then myself and an intern.
Our "team," was me, the intern, and one of the VPs. On my first day on the service side, I was given a spreadsheet of about 400 SEO customers we were managing. There were about a dozen colors and formatting options that labeled customers at different stages...active, canceled, collections, needs keyword research, needs meta tags, etc.
SEO in 2001? Meta tags!
If you can imagine two people and an intern handling ~400 SEO customers, you can probably imagine what that kind of service was like. But, in 2001, while SEO was still pretty unknown, that's all you really needed to move the majority of rankings. When I started, our service consisted of this: Keyword Research using the Overture Keyword Suggestion Tool (Ahh, the memories. You kids these days are spoiled with your exports and tools like WordStream, WordTracker and the Google Keyword Tool), and a set of title and meta tags on the home page.
That's it. Keyword research and meta tags. One set. Done. Oh, and ranking reports generated by WebPosition Gold each month.
When I started on the service side, it was explained to me that they didn't really know how SEO worked. They just knew that rankings were valuable to businesses. They had hired a consultant to show them the process and this is what they were selling (in addition to another few services that were phased out the next few years).
As a part of my transition to the service side, it was my responsibility to "figure out SEO." For the next few months, I read every SEO publication, every day. I trolled the top forums and devoured absolutely everything on WebmasterWorld.
During those first few months, I put together some fundamental, white-hat content strategies into our service. (At least, they were fundamental to today's standards. Back then, this was pretty significant.) Our service evolved to include more keyword research, more meta tags, optimization of existing content, technical/architecture troubleshooting and the beginnings of content creation. By the end of 2001, it was really beginning to take shape as an effective SEO service and we were consistently getting greater and greater results.
Planting the Seeds of Automationization
But something else happened during those first few months...seeds that began to plant themselves into the fundamental design and value that's a part of Ontolo today. I began to look at our processes and to see how they could be optimized and automated.
The first thing I tackled was automating our sales lead process. We'd have 30-100 leads come in each day (For a while, the company spammed several million email addresses each week from a location in Canada.). These leads included the lead's email address, phone number, business URL and the top keywords they wanted to get ranked. Those leads would be reviewed by the VP of Sales, who would then distribute them to the sales guys. The sales guys would then run WebPosition Gold ranking reports and send the reports to the leads to show them how poorly they were ranking. As a result, the office was quiet each day until, oh, I'd say about 11am, after running their ranking reports. Then, the sales guys would hit the phones and the entire office would be buzzing with energy. It was a really fantastic thing to see the energy in the office instantly transform each day.
But it didn't make sense to me that 20 people would spend two hours of their day running this software that just goes on in the background. That's 40 hours a day, completely wasted. That's a full workweek of an employee - the productivity of five employees - wasted each day.
So, I came in one weekend, picked up a copy of AutoMate and wrote some macros to read the incoming sales lead email account, find new lead emails, process them with WebPosition Gold, then send them back to the VP of Sales. On Monday, I showed it to the VP. Then the CEO. They were so excited, I thought I might end up getting my first man-kisses. (I didn't.)
From then on I decided to focus on two things: Scaling search operations (hundreds of clients) and automation.
From $0.05 to $5.00 on the ASE
I left that company in 2004. I was burned out, the CEO held some positions that I didn't agree with, and there were other signs that the company was headed for disaster. Before I left, however, some amazing things happened:
- We had over 1,400 active SEO clients in the Spring of 2005.
- We had over 170 employees.
- I personally trained dozens of SEOs, copywriters and account managers and designed the org charts for how our marketing operations/SEO teams would grow. At the age of 23ish, it was a phenomenal experience.
- We had won, multiple times, the Best Place to Work in the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, et al). Our office culture was pretty great for a few years there.
- Our stock went from $0.05 to, at one point, over $5.00 and was on the American Stock Exchange.
- We setup, designed and sold an SEO service to a large cell phone manufacturer (Actually, I don't know that we ever got paid. That's another story.) to execute SEO campaigns in 35+ countries. At the time, we didn't know of any other company providing services on this level. It was amazing to be involved in something we knew was huge, but that others hadn't yet seemed to discover.
It was fast, it was huge, and it was fun. We might not have been changing the world, but we all knew we were creating something great.
"It's the People, Stupid."
Of all of the things we accomplished, though, the thing that made that company exceptional was the people that worked there. I'm going to forget some people here, and I'm sincerely sorry to those I might leave out, but I'd like to give credit to some of the best marketers I may ever know, some of whom you may never have heard of, while others, you might know quite well: Andy Beal, Scott Gardner, Scott Woodard, Jenny Halasz, Dan London, Jennifer London, Al Scillitani, and many more.
The people that helped to grow that company into what it became were its greatest asset. It's unfortunate that the company no longer exists today. For me, it was a lesson in taking care of your employees...and "taking care" isn't just giving them a nice work environment and good pay. It's actually listening to them, letting them develop their expertise, then trusting them with it and providing them with both the accountability and authority to make the decisions they need to make.
I see companies out there now like BlueGlass and Distilled who are having huge growth and making big changes and acquisitions. A year ago, I was sure that some of these companies were on the path that we were on and were headed toward certain failure. I've seen some things over the past couplefew months that demonstrate that they might understand some of the things the leaders of this organization didn't. I'm now hopeful that these growing companies in this little industry of ours (remember when it was fairly tiny?) continue to do well and grow in the right ways that benefit the company, its employees, its customers and the entire industry as a whole.
Andy Beal Saves the Day
After I left KeywordRanking/WebSourced, I took the summer off and made friends with a guy named Pabst at various pool halls around town. I interviewed at a few places, but none of the opportunities were ones I wanted to commit to. A few months later, in September of 2005, I got a call from Andy Beal - who had also left the company - asking if I'd like to join him heading up the operations side in starting a new SEO company. Andy was my first "real manager" at our previous company and it didn't take much convincing to come on board.
As you all know, Andy was one of the first SEO bloggers with Search Engine Lowdown. What you don't know is how phenomenal he is as a salesperson. And not in the sleazy, plaid pants and polyester collared shirt kind of way. He turns down the jobs he shouldn't take and knows how to clearly communicate value like no one I've ever seen. There was no fluff in his pitches...it's just a conversation about if and how he can help you. By the end, if he can help you, you probably want to buy from him. It's that simple. He held the top sales records in our previous company long after he stopped selling, as dozens of other guys chased his numbers. It was an incredible thing to see him put up his numbers on so many Friday afternoons.
So when he asked me to come on board, it was an easy decision. He's honest, works hard, has great ethics, gets the sales and marketing side, and is great to work with and for. When I came on board, there were a few other folks who were already on board, including Scott Gardner (Sales), Mike Marshall (Technology), and Erin Gordon (who later became the single best account manager of the dozens I've ever worked with).
A few months later, in January of 2006, we were cruising. Sales were coming in, our service was coming together, we had a team of great copywriters and were steadily growing. It was the perfect time for what I was about to do.
Stumping the Master of Words
I walked into Andy's office one day. I told him we should get rid of working hours for our employees and let them work whenever they wanted to and from wherever they wanted to.
I don't think I've ever seen Andy try so hard to politely decline a request. I'd finally stumped the master of words.
Without going too far into the philosophy of what I had proposed, eliminating work hours and locations was only step one of a larger plan. After the last company I was at, I saw burnout as an unnecessary evil. Work/Life Balance is a completely mythical goal for those of us who want to achieve exceptional objectives. The reality is that work and life integrate. Trying to separate the two by segmenting both your working space and working time is counterproductive on levels of both corporate and personal objectives. It's also an outdated practice that was designed during the industrial revolution...long before the communications technology that exists today.
That Andy ended up trusting my insane idea was one of those life-changing opportunities that I often reflect upon. I don't often attribute much to luck, but here, I was very lucky.
Testing Hippies for Productivity
But when you talk to most people about things like eliminating work hours and locations, it all sounds like airy-fairy hippie shit.
So, after many meetings, we decided to put it to the test. We would try it for one month. During a few working hours (10-3, I think) you had to be available via cell or IM. And you had to have a computer and internet connection at home.
At the end of the trial, we issued a survey to all of the employees. It had two questions: 1, What percentage did your productivity change during the past month? 2, What percentage of a raise would you forego in order to eliminate working hours and location?
The average answers were: #1, +15%, #2, +10%. By our very unscientific testing, eliminating work hours and a fixed location contributed an increase of 25% in productivity per person, as compared to their salary. And everyone was happier. They were treated like adults and appreciated it. The company wins, customers win, and the employees win. That this practice isn't more widespread is mind-boggling to me.
I'm not going to go into this part of the story any more. We're about to hire here at Ontolo and will explain more of this philosophy, including some other things that might be surprising. And, well, we don't like to spoil surprises here.
Nine months into the start of this company, we were operating at a $140,000+/mo run rate with 23 employees. Fast growth. Again. (Huge credit goes to two places. Sales: Scott Gardner and Frank Reed on that one. They closed deals left and right with some really great clients. On the service side, folks like Erin Gordon, Al Scillitani, Jennifer London and Cameron McLauchlin kept our customers succeeding and happy.)
And then it happened. Again. The folks pulling the purse strings (folks above Andy) made some very ineffective, uninformed decisions. Hubris and delusion, once again, led to the collapse of another great company. In November of 2006, just 13 months after starting, and after helping some of my employees leave, I left.
This time, instead of taking time off, I went full on into consulting.
On My Own & Burned Out
By January of 2007, I was making more money than I ever had. I was also working more than I ever had. And I was partying (almost) harder than I ever had. For a few months there, it felt like there was no down time. Whatever I was doing, I went full on with it.
One Sunday night in the middle of March, I remember it very clearly, I was laying around with my dog on my living room floor. I'd just had a long, intense weekend of fun that followed a long, intense week of work.
I was 26. I was burned out. Again. I was smoking a pack and a half of Marlboro Reds each day, drank more than my share of wine, liquor and coffee, and was lost as all hell. I didn't understand...I owned my own house, had a great group of friends, was making a ton of money, worked my own hours...by most standards, I had a pretty great life.
But, deep down, I was terribly unfulfilled. I got up from the floor and resolved to make some changes in my life. I didn't go to sleep until after the birds greeted the sunrise. This is when I dove into personal development, psychology, sociology, pickup artists, philosophy, spirituality and religion...I consumed information like I'd never find it again - thousands of books and thousands of hours of lectures over the next few years, designing a value system, ethics, and way of living. A couple months later, I was in Barcelona and the Mediterranean reading this new book called The Four Hour Work Week. The timing couldn't have been more perfect.
I stopped taking on new clients and decided to focus on designing my own life and lifestyle. After all, what's the point of work if I'm not enjoying my life?
Discovering the Meaning of Life While Living in a Van Down by the River
I won't bore you with the details of what followed as I lived in a van for 3 months and 15,000 miles around the country, traveled for another six months while living in Craigslist sublets found in Boston, Chicago, Bellingham and Denver...(I continue to travel 3+ months out of the year) I had quit smoking shortly after that day in March, I quit drinking for all of 2008 and 2010, I sold my house and got rid of over 90% of my possessions, paid attention to my health and fitness, trimmed my clothes to only white t-shirts and jeans (I've since added gray shirts)... It's been a wild ride, but just the one that I, and I think a lot of other people, benefitted from.
When I read posts like this one by Justin Briggs, there's a similar sense I get of the moment in some peoples' lives where they reach their breaking point necessary to take control of their own life, instead of being cast about like a corked bottle in the ocean. They don't teach you that in school...
Ontolo is Born
In July of 2008, at the start of the "Craigslist Sublets" trip, I spent the month in Boston. I love Boston. It's such a great town. (I loved it so much, I returned at the end of that trip from December 2008 to May of 2009.) The purpose of that whole trip was "to figure out what I was going to do next."
In my third week there, after meeting some amazing people like Aaron White, Mike Volpe, Ben Grossman, Rebecca Corliss, and Todd Van Hoosear. I had made up my mind. I would go back into SEO, but I had one requirement: To avoid boredom, I wanted to solve the hardest problem I could find.
I decided to help link builders get as close to their ideal link prospects as quickly as possible.
I had formulated some ideas for how to do this, at scale (imagine 1k+ users), and in a way no one was doing it before. Strangely, still, no one has put together link building technology that allows you to search on the full text of link prospects like we do at Ontolo. The opportunities that full-text indexing and searchability opens up are incredible. I know SEOmoz and Majestic SEO have put together phenomenal technologies for competitor backlinks, but without the element of relevance, they were still relatively useless for the projects I was working on. Even using multiple citation analysis was still relatively ineffective.
And so, I started writing the first lines of code for the Ontolo Link Building Toolset. (If Frankenstein took the form of code, that's what I had created.)
The End. (of the story)
What Do I Remember Most?
I remember my first search engine love. 1995: WebCrawler.
I remember reading in Wired about when HotBot came out (long before I was in SEO), how it was going to revolutionize Search.
I remember the monthly Google Dances on the last Friday of each month. Perhaps oddly, I found that to be one of the things that brought the community together. Each of those Fridays, EVERYONE got on the forums and exchanged notes and successes. That happens much less now with updates causing more drops for SEOs than big increases. Add to that the rare "across the board update," and there's not much that brings the entire industry together at a single time on a regular basis. (I think conferences are an entirely different thing.)
I remember things like the Overture Keyword Suggestion Tool and getting achy fingers from so much copying and pasting that I started using a trackball.
I remember how getting indexed in 2 days was something you paid for with PositionTech.
I remember MarketLeap's competitor backlink counter and how I lived and died by it.
I remember seeing Greg Boser talk about running multiple regression analysis on Excite(?) in the late 90s, reverse-engineering the algorithm and getting top spots for "viagra" searches. I pretty much thought he was a god.
I remember the first time I met Danny Sullivan and how personable and approachable he was. Later that night, I met Matt Cutts and thought the same thing. (As a side note, between those two, Rand Fishkin, and Brett Tabke, I think we're pretty lucky to have four well-grounded, intelligent, approachable and helpful folks leading this industry.)
I remember speaking at my first conference. And being terrible at it. I'm surprised I didn't vomit...even more surprised that everyone didn't leave. (I'm much more comfortable in front of crowds now.)
I remember winning Marketing Pilgrim's first SEM Scholarship Contest.
I remember how that post led to me getting introduced to a major book publisher to write one of the first social media books...and declining.
I remember seeing phenomenal SEO posts by Rand in 2007 and thinking "something big is about to happen over there."
Then I remember seeing Rand strip to his skivvies at the Hugh Hefner suite at the YPN party at PubCon Vegas in November of 2007. I wish I could say that was the "something big."
(I hope I later remember that Rand laughed at the above paragraph.)
What Have I Learned?
I've learned that the people and companies that do well are the ones that give a shit. And that giving a shit is harder than it sounds.
And I've learned that giving a shit might be the only thing you need to learn. Applied in any context, it's all I've found that matters.
What Am I Surprised By?
What I'm about to say can be construed as critical, but I hope that it's interpreted constructively: I find that most people, particularly marketers and SEOs (probably because those are most of the people I talk to), confuse "interesting" with "useful," but don't practice "philosophy" as much as they could.
What do I mean by that?
As marketers, especially online where there is almost zero cost of publishing, we produce a TON of content. It's how we define ourselves as marketers...we write, and if people like what we write, we're "experts." The difficulty is that a lot of folks who write "interesting" things but that aren't "useful" are considered experts. The danger is that it's easy to read these things that are written and to accept them as truth, accurate, or what you should practice. For the record, I'm guilty of this on both sides as well.
So what do you do about it? That's your call. What I did is that I actually stopped reading blogs for a few years. I just stopped. I deleted everything from my RSS reader. I simply stopped. I had to close it all out and unwind all of the thinking that had developed. Only then would it be easier to develop my own ideas.
Next, I sought out the folks who are writing about results they've achieved and helping you to get those results. Some link builders I recommend reading are Justin Briggs, Ross Hudgens, the SEER blog, the Outspoken Media blog, and Rae Hoffman-Dolan. These are the folks pumping out content that's not only interesting, but entirely useful. As in...right now you can go out and use it.
Reading Studying those folks is what will get you to be a better link builder. Add them to your feed readers right now. Then go do what they say and analyze the results against your objectives.
Developing a Philosophy of Search
So what about philosophy? Philosophy, how I intend it, is the study and practice of values. How it applies to search is this: A page or site is ranked based on how valuable it is. If you don't know how to understand and think about what "value" means, you're going to be left behind in the world of tactics and following strategies that other people have designed for their own needs and objectives. Philosophy allows you to invent and design your own strategies and tactics.
Let's make this tangible: Social media's influence on search. If the purpose of a search engine is to provide the most relevant results to a searcher, how much sense does it make to incorporate social signals into rankings? I don't know the answer to that question, but philosophy allows you to ask the right questions: How widely used is social media? How accessible is the data? What actions are taken by social visitors as compared to search visitors? As compared to email visitors? As compared to bookmarked visitors? Comparatively, when someone visits a site from a social media link, do the signals (ie: time on site, bounce rate, etc) indicate that it's a relevant result? If so, how do those signals weigh against the hundreds of other trustworthy signals Google has incorporated into its search algorithm?
These are the questions that must be asked in order to assess how much effort to put into social media for search rankings. I can tell you right now that from thousands of search results that we've run statistical analyses on, that social signals matter very, very little. So the statistician would say that social media doesn't impact search results very highly.
However, the philosopher would assert that it's a valuable metric for relevance, simply because of its current and projected wide usage. It will factor into rankings in the future and, therefore, the decision must be made now to cultivate valuable social media practices that are likely to influence rankings so that you are prepared for when Google is ready to allow social signals to more significantly affect search rankings.
The philosophical perspective is rarely surprised by changes like Panda...the statisticians and folks who are trying to get away with as much as they can, in this moment, are the ones who are surprised.
Right now, the philosophy of social media's influence on search dictates that the effort you put in today will be useful tomorrow, not today. If you want rankings today, go get a ton of links. If you want rankings tomorrow, go develop your social presence. If you want both, do both.
When Sergey Brin and Larry Page decided to use links/citations as a quality signal for search, they weren't solving a problem with a statistical solution. They used a philosophical solution and verified it with statistics. Statistics can only help you look back. Philosophy allows you to look ahead.
I've digressed, yet again, but I hope you might find this distinction resonating with you and see how it might make your link building and SEO efforts even better, both now and in the long-term.
Internet Marketers are Kicking Ass
I'll wrap up by saying this: I truly feel honored to be a member of the SEO, Link Building and Internet Marketing communities. I think this little industry of ours is growing quite well. Seeing companies like SEOmoz, HubSpot and Raven kicking ass and taking names brings a smile to my face. I think a lot of us knew long ago what kind of potential our industries held. To see them growing, and growing well, brings a humble sense of validation. Ours is an industry of folks who bust their asses day in and day out, are genuinely concerned with ethics (and can still enjoy and engage in debates on both sides), and all come together with fantastic conferences, blogs and support all around.
I'm looking forward to many more years and another one of these in August of 2021.