I was planning to post this interview with Todd next Monday, but as usual, Todd has done a super job and providing insight into all things important about SEO. I first met Todd via email almost a year ago by commenting on a post at his blog. Since then we’ve met in person several times at Pubcon and SES conferences.
One of the great things about the SEO industry is the networking and opportunity to meet and collaborate with some of the smartest people you’ll find anywhere. Todd is certainly one of those people. He is highly regarded by many of the most prominent and talented SEOs in the industry. I’m happy to get 10 min of his time via IM once in a while, so getting him to answer 11 detailed questions on SEO is very much appreciated. Once you read the interview below, you’ll see why.
Please describe your background and how did you get involved with search marketing?
Hey Lee… I see there are other great questions here so I’ll leave the plugs for the end if people still wanna read ‘em. I’ve been doin’ websites since ’97 and learning about the web as much as possible since then. If people really want to know a Google search for my name will reveal more than they ever wanted to know.
I think you write one of the best blogs on SEO out there and I first came upon it from a post mentioning "the first rule of SEO club is you don’t talk about SEO club" which I thought was hilarious. Where did the handle/name Stuntdubl come from? What have some of the pitfalls and some of the benefits been to writing a blog?
Thanks Lee. Your blog rocks too. I consider myself extremely fortunate that my site has been as well received as it has been. Your blog has been a daily check/ read for quite a while, and I was glad to meet you shortly after writing the “SEO club” spoof. It was about a year or so after my first search marketing conference in Orlando I think, and I thought I would take the idea of an industry get together to an extreme with the spoof. That was after my first conference seeing the wonderful irony that is all the people that go to an industry conference. The name stuntdubl started by having a brother in a band that I always teased that I’d be his stunt double if they ever hit it big – I think I was just a wannabe l33t haxxor and like the originality of the misspelling. I then used it as my basement dj name. Shortly after my addiction to vinyl, I lived at Webmaster World for the last three and a half years and tried to be a sponge under that name, and tried to contribute on occasion. When I went to my first conference in Orlando, I realized that people had much more association with that name than with my own. Now I try to blog decent stuff for people that like learning and speculation in the field of internet marketing, and it seems like a good thing to stick with for personal branding I guess. It’s still really funny to me when someone refers to me as stuntdubl in person though.
It has been great being a blogger for the most part. The only drawback really is that everything you say is up for public scrutiny, and it’s very time consuming to write quality material. It’s a bit unnerving at times to know that if you make any kind of mistake, you’re going to get called out on it quite quickly. Most of the time I am just speculating out loud to spark discussion which I think turns into a positive thing. The feedback I’ve gotten has been amazing, and I’m glad that people find the information useful. I really started the blog as a repository to reference ideas that would be handy for future use.
There seems to be a big disparity between corporate marketing budgets allocated towards organic SEO and pay per click (83% to PPC and 11% organic (SEMPO State of Search Marketing Survey 2005) yet research shows that most consumers trust organic rankings significantly more than PPC ads (Enquiro, iProspect, Nielsen/Netratings). What do you think SEO practitioners can do to change that and close the gap?
There is a disparity indeed Lee. There is more traffic in organic listings, but the search engines are now shifting and monetizing the “top results” with things like the onebox and multiple paid listings. I like paid search as a consumer. It’s a good indication of quality and trust. There’s money in that, and there is good money in marketing smart. With that being said, it should be noted that part of the disparity stems from media spend being included in the total spend on SEM which tends to inflate the PPC side of things.
It isn’t easy to understand search engines, business, marketing, and other skills all in one package. I think there is a logical disconnect between the art and science of SEM. Both PPC and SEO are comprised of art and science, but pay per click is more of a science. SEO is more of an art. PPC is a science of known factors and well oiled variables that you can tweak and play with low aging expectations (immediate feedback), where SEO takes time for trends to emerge and things to change. You have to plan months out to do SEO. For this reason it is much more difficult to grasp the conceptual relationships between changes and results.
In order to close the gap in spending, I think SEO’s will need to apply more science to the practice. I’ve seen some of the larger SEO companies that have been able to demonstrate their results. To the consumer SEO feels a bit like some strange magic voodoo. The more they learn about it, the more they are often confused. Business owners and executives don’t need to know about mod-rewrite, authority links, and spider-ability…they need to know about bottom line spend versus results. They need the numbers which are pretty difficult to deliver in a lot of cases. Part of the problem is that consumer analytics are not always understood or applied directly.
Early last year there were a number of SEO firm acquisitions. What do you think the market looks like this year for SEO firms? Do you think there will be more aggregation or acquisitions? What do you think would be the biggest selling points for a SEO firm to be acquired?
I think internet marketing is a fact of life for regular marketing folks. The migration of media distribution to newer forms will keep SEO a positive industry for quite some time. I really think we are lucky to be in such an exciting and lucrative field where there is so much demand and action. As long as there is demand for SEO services, there will be potential for acquisitions. The bigger companies want a piece of the action, and they’re willing to ante up to get it. If I was a larger company there would be a handful of things I would want. The biggest valuation factor to any technology sector company (from what I’ve seen), has to be the future potential of the company. I would argue that the valuation should be based on things like:
I’m sure there are plenty of things that I am missing, but I am certainly not a venture capitalist or business investor. To be a profitable SEO company, you need to have profitable and satisfied clients. This is a difficult thing to scale, that not many companies have done extremely effectively in the past. I think it will improve, and there is certainly an opportunity for those that can do so. Aaron has a recent take on SEO company valuation as well that is quite insightful. There are a TON of SEO companies, and more coming into the market all the time. Some are dedicating their time and efforts to SEO/ SEM, while others just offer it as a value-added service. The point is that there are probably way more than there needs to be for the extended future. The industry is still in the growth period, but in my mind has to be nearing a roll-off point of over saturation similar to the way the web design industry became. So what will differentiate the GREAT companies from those that will wither away? High value to their customers, great toolsets, and scalable systems would be high on my list of those priorities.
You’ve worked in the search engine optimization industry for quite a while and as someone we should all suck up to, and a recognized SEO b-lister, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about SEO that you hear from companies? From other SEOs?
The biggest misconceptions about SEO are commonly that what works a year ago, 6 months ago, 3 months ago, or sometimes even last week works today. SEO is an organic, living, breathing, evolving art and science that doesn’t have just one strategy. I think SEO is a catchphrase, but SEM is a more holistic way of applying traditional marketing techniques with the application of search intelligence and improving information to create a new media marketing mix that will be successful.
From prospective clients, I think it is important to understand that people shopping for SEO services are often in much different stages of the buying cycle. In one day, I may get a call from:
1. someone looking to build a website
2. someone wondering why their website isn’t ranking after they just finished it
3. someone who has had rankings and dropped from glory
4. someone who had 5 websites and has been practicing SEO since 1998.
Now you can see how different prospects have a much different level of understanding. I tend to like working with those folks much further along in the learning process as the likelihood for effective communication and success is much higher. I try not to discourage folks that are just starting the process, by pointing them in the right direction of things to read. This is definitely one of the purposes of blogging as well. You can learn a lot in this industry in a short period of time. A big part of identifying the falsehoods in SEO is learning who to listen to, and identifying their motives and bias. A prospect that can do this, can find a GOOD SEO company, and get the most out of them.
As far as being an “SEO B-lister”, I have to congratulate Andy on the wild success of his linkbait. It is really fascinating to see the types of things that are viral that people will REALLY talk about and link to. I’ve mentioned to Nick_W and others that Threadwatch was a perfect name for a community, as SEO’s are about as gossipy as a sewing circle. Andy knew he was “stirring the pot” with that one, and it worked quite well. There was as much thought to what got left out as there was to what got put in, and it demonstrated just how well Andy knows the industry. There are LOTS of very qualified individuals in this space, and I would hate to truly make a list like that, but it got people thinking and talking. There is importance to the community of people that you surround yourself with was also a valid point that came from the article. The point of “sucking up” was made to an extreme, but a large part of understanding SEO is understanding the history of the industry, and the people that have made it what it is. Many of these people are very approachable, and earning the respect of your peers is quite important to be able to have people to trust for specific tasks. I may not know the answer to every question, but from spending enough time getting to know the right people and showing them respect, I certainly know the right people to ask when I don’t know.
I think this is an important principle that goes far beyond SEO. Getting to know the experts within any space really can’t be that difficult anymore. The web has made everyone much more approachable, and has allowed people to communicate with those that would have never been possible before. I really think folks within ANY industry should reach out and thank the people that have contributed to the advancement of their occupation, and offer constructive criticism. Every industry has an expert online…contacting and starting simple dialogues with these folks is not difficult. If there’s NOT an expert, then you REALLY have an opportunity within your field.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people posted about Andy Hagans post about making the SEO B list. Why was that post citation worthy? It was original and people love to read about themselves.” – says Aaron Wall in “Conversations that are easy to cite” of SEObook.
Is there really such a thing as black hat/white hat, or are those just labels SEOs place on themselves for self promotion? What do you think about the position that black hat tactics are ok as long as the client is informed of risks/benefits? Also, what about the white hats that seem to be cozying up to black hats lately? (At least at conferences)
Blackhat/ whitehat is a debate that will probably never die. I tend to think there are no hats, only goals, but your methodology for achieving them is how others will determine your “hat color”. To me, using ethics as a unique selling point, or trying to use conservative SEO techniques to rank for highly competitive phrases is pretty questionable. Some people prefer a high risk, short term, “all-in” approach to SEO. Automation is a big part of this. I tend to think of the blackhat camp as the one with lots of great tools and very little concern to the industries from which they make money from. There are of course, low level spammers that fit the mold as well. Obviously pills, pr0n, and gambling are big business on the internet, and there are many very wealthy SEO’s that promote these areas. The tools they use for optimization and promotion in these fields is really amazing. I don’t work in any of those industries myself, but I am fascinated by some of the techniques that they use and applying them to less high profile, high risk ventures. There are some brilliant minds at work in what I would deem “ultra-competitive” industries, and they are consistently on the bleeding edge of search engine advancements. These are a good people to listen to on certain matters.
I would consider white hats to be the business minded conservatives. They often try to suck up to the engines (the ultra-conservatives) thinking that this will somehow save them from having a site banned. What bothers me most is that they use their high and mighty ethics as their selling point. I certainly get questions from clients about our “SEO ethics”. My response is usually something to the effect of – “SEO is an ambiguous field. We press the limits in higher competition industries at times, but risk factors are always disclosed to our clients”. There are lots of interesting discussions about SEO ethics, and that’s why this debate won’t go away anytime soon.
One of my fondest memories from a conference session was seeing Shari Thurow on stage with David Naylor. Every time Dave opened his mouth, Shari’s head started shaking “no”. It was hilarious. Almost like a nervous tick from being allergic to anything that came from Dave or something. The discussion was fascinating as well, because it was represented by two people who had pretty much polar opposite views on life in general (from my best estimation), but were able to show each other enough respect to publicly agree to disagree. I think these two are among a handful of people who have become the poster children for this heated and often foolish debate. The ideas that come from two polar opposites is explosive and valid. When two people like this CAN agree on something, it is probably a very good technique worthy of consideration.
While Shari’s tactics and outlook on SEO drive me nearly to the brink tearing my own hair out (mainly her insistence on helping Google with spam reports), she is a very talented and successful SEO in her own right. I tend to lean more to Dave’s side of the fence with regard to SEO philosophy, though I certainly wouldn’t call myself a blackhat. The techniques I use are definitely on the very light shades of gray (I like a trick or two, but nothing that’s going to get banned), but my philosophy tends to sway towards the darker shades of grey (I don’t do spam reports, and I don’t have moral objection to automated tactics as long as they are legal and non-destructive). I think that’s a big part of the debate. Not so much good vs. evil or black vs. white, but the philosophy by which a person chooses to conduct their business with regards to customer disclosure, unique selling points, and relationship with the engines.
You’ve been involved with WebmasterWorld as a forum moderator for several years. I’ve heard many seasoned SEOs say that information from forums should be taken with a grain of salt. What’s your take on getting SEO information from forums?
Webmaster forums are an integral part of the advancement of web technology. It is truly amazing that thousands of people from across the globe can share likeminded insights in a single place. I think the people are part of what makes this occupation so interesting. It is such an eclectic mix of people that practice this profession and its’ variations.
There is definitely a progression to the lifecycle of an SEO, and the lifecycle of forum participation. Most forums have a core group of knowledgeable members and newer folks showing up from time to time progressing through their lifecycle. I was lucky enough to run through a large part of my SEO/ forum lifecycle at Webmaster World . Most SEO’s will spend time frequenting the forums to learn. Some will choose to actively participate by sparking dialogue or even just asking questions for their own benefit. A good member will re-contribute to the community by assisting other users, and in so be recognized as a person that is worthy of consideration or respect. Despite these forums being world wide entities, it is still nice to be able to do business with people you’ve met in person.
There is LOTS of good information available in forums, but there is also a lot of really old misinformation floating around too. It’s very similar to trust with links. You can trust the experienced folks with a track record with success and positive reputation on topics that they are qualified for. Timeliness of the information is a key factor. Even more important is having a network of people you can count on available on instant messenger (the SEO rolodex).
As folks progress through the SEO lifecycle, they often disappear from public view as the value of forums has diminishing returns. After a while, there is not enough gained on a personal level to justify what one puts into the community. Even our friend Aaron, who has always been extremely open with sharing information, has had a bit of a revelation on this front as of late even after doing things like releasing link harvester which I’m sure has helped more than a few newer SEO’s. I don’t think it is a negative thing, and it allows others to step up into those public roles both in forums and speaking at and attending conferences. Everyone should get their 15 megabytes of fame, and then realize how to make a living and enjoy themselves.
With free inclusion services like Google and Yahoo Sitemaps as well as the use of user data and personal search history for rankings, do you think organic search engine optimization as we know it today willl become outdated? Or is SEO just going to continue to change and evolve? How do you see SEO fitting in with corporate marketing strategy for companies as the industry matures?
I asked Roger “Martinibuster” Montti a very similar question recently, and his answer was basically to the effect that personalized search is a ways from being fully adopted. There is very little incentive for the average user to spend the time it takes to understand and utilize personalized search. The buy in and loyalty level from users is quite low. The potential is certainly there, and I think it will certainly change the face of SEO, but it is not going to be an overnight thing, and we will have time to adapt to it and utilize new techniques to our benefit.
SEO will definitely continue to evolve into more specific niches as the search engines evolve. Just looking back on the last year, it’s amazing to see how things have changed. SEO must be a part of the corporate marketing strategy, just like it was a must that they had a website several years ago. At some level, SEO’s are really just “meta-webmasters” that have a strong understanding of how each piece of the puzzle fits with the other pieces. I think you will continue to see LOTS of openings for “internet marketing project managers” at large corporations as they increasingly recognize the value of strong rankings. This is one of the reasons that I love the PPC disparity that you mentioned earlier. These folks are just getting their feet wet with internet marketing, understanding paid inclusion is a great prelude to a successful SEO campaign. As some of that budget (and other budgets) migrate towards optimization for organic search, it will be a great time to be an SEO (if it wasn’t already).
It’s getting easier to accomplish the things that were considered SEO in the past like getting dynamic URL’s spidered, but the demand areas are just shifting. Rather than needing LOTS of links, people now need the RIGHT links. They also need viral marketing which I think will be a large part of SEO in the future. Gray Wolf commented recently on the correlations between del.icio.us and the sandbox, and I highly doubt that this is just a coincidence. The engines will definitely be implementing user data to validate the integrity of the algorithmic results. If you have all the right links, but no click through and very few users, you are not going to have rankings. The emphasis on what is priority to an SEO campaign will be shifting as nearly quickly as the engines change how sites are ranked. This is one of the things that make scaling the growth of an SEO company difficult. Employees must be prepared for a dynamic shift in job responsibility to continuously be effective for clients.
What could search engines be doing better in terms of communicating with the SEO community? Are there tools for search marketers from the search engines that you would like to see?
Google and Yahoo have been making strides to improve communication for quite some time and they are doing better and better all the time. Even MSN is opening up a little bit and starting to become more than just the faceless monolithic corporate entity that they’ve always been. Firstly, I must suck up a little bit to Matt Cutts, who has done an incredible job lately of communicating with webmasters. It’s hard to have any argument with a barrage of posts on communication and webmasters in the last few weeks. He’s really embraced blogging and has certainly used it to his benefit for soliciting quality feedback. I written several posts in the past questioning Google’s communication with webmasters, they really are trying to improve. There’s a long ways to go, but the effort is there (at least on Matt’s part). One of the areas I don’t understand is why Google feels the need to obfuscate backlink information. I really don’t think this is necessary any longer as their algorithm has progressed beyond just the simple need for backlinks. I think this could be opened back up and would be received with gratitude from the SEO/ webmaster community.
Tim at Yahoo does a nice job of actively listening to feedback as well. I think both engines listen to feedback, but there is only so many people that can implement the changes. I’ve said over and over that I don’t envy search engineers. It would be a tough job to try to fend of mountains of SEO from disrupting the balance of your search engine results and working for a publicly held company. I think Yahoo and Google could probably improve communication for their paid search products customer service. Since it is such a large portion of their revenue stream it seems more emphasis should be placed there for keeping satisfied customers that will continue to stay loyal to their brands.
What are some of the resources you rely on for information on SEO/SEM? Best practices, news, industry information.
I have a ton of channels that I try to stay in contact with, but there is a lot of overlap. The biggest concerns, obviously, is what has changed with the algorithm, and this is not the type of information you want to be searching for on in forums. There are several SEO’s that I keep in touch with on messenger and via e-mail. Other than those, I am a huge fan of bloglines. I keep my subscriptions public, so it’s easier to just mention it than it is to list folks (although for some reason it hasn’t updated in a while). My daily reads would include: WebmasterWorld, Search Engine Watch, Threadwatch, SEOBook, SEOMoz, Your site, Matt’s Blog, SEW Blog, Jim, Graywolf, SERoundtable, WebGuerrilla, Oilman on Rockstars, . A couple of recent additions would include SEO Speedwagon, and the Web-Professor, and probably a few more that I forgot to mention. There’s so many other good forums, people I wish would blog more and personal insights available on the web it is overwhelming to just read and digest all day long.
What search engines do you use most often? Do you use different engines for different purposes?
I pretty much stick to Google and Yahoo. I would say a good majority of my searches are just for SEO research. When I am looking for something specific, I will use a targeted service like Kayak, Truelocal, or other vertical, regional, or specialized search services. I use Google a lot for site searches. I was really glad to see Brett re-allowed spiders at Webmasterworld, as that is something I use quite often to find quality posts on a subject. Mainly I just use the search engines to test different queries to gauge the changes in results (and try to understand what may be causing them).
Thanks a lot for the opportunity and great questions Lee. I wish you a wonderfully fulfilling and prosperous 2006!
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Lee Odden is a 9 year internet marketing veteran and President of TopRank Online Marketing, a leading search marketing agency that helps companies increase sales and brand visibility online. Lee has worked with hundreds of companies to develop and implement winning online marketing programs with particular expertise in search engine optimization, online public relations and blog marketing.
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