I met Adam at Pubcon 2007 when I randomly sat at the same lunch table as him. I had absolutely no idea who he was but his nametag said he was from Bend, Oregon (I'm from Beaverton) and he seemed like a nice guy, so we exchanged cards. I got to know him better as I attempted to get him involved in SEMpdx. Adam did a Searchfest 2008 mini-interview (ostensibly as a prospective Searchfest attendee) that was noticeably better than any of our actual panelist interviews; so when we had a late speaker cancellation for our link-building panel, instead of going with 2 panelists, I pushed for Adam to be added based almost solely on my personal intuition (None of the other board members knew him, I didn't even know him that well and his mini-interview was his only piece of scholarship that I'd read).

Adam did an excellent job presenting at Searchfest; the blog post based upon his Searchfest presentation Link Building Fundamentals: A Primer was absolutely phenomenal and probably the best writing on link-building that I've seen. The quality of each subsequent blog post of his has been just as excellent. Adam absolutely qualifies as an SEO thought-leader and is absolutely one of the nicest people in this industry.

1) Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living?

I'm an internet marketer by trade. So that means I get to do a lot of search marketing (organic and paid), social media engagement, community building, email marketing, analytics and testing, and a variety of other tactics. I've been involved in internet marketing since about 1997. My father John Audette founded one of the early search marketing companies and I started in the field working for him.

I've had lots of different jobs over the years: I worked for MMG (now Outrider) in the early years earning my chops, with MSN after they bought LinkExchange, I ran Adventive with my dad when we published I-Search, and about 12 other discussion lists, and all along I've been doing SEO consulting. Now I do it full time at AudetteMedia, my boutique shop.

Adventive was kind of interesting. Right after MMG was sold it started, so the timing was perfect for the bubble. At that point there were a lot of up-and-comers getting started in the industry who were Adventive moderators (they ran their respective discussion lists): Bryan Eisenberg, Nick Usborne, Detlev Johnson, Shari Thurow, Eva Rosenberg, Veronica Yuill, Lennart Svanberg. And lots of others.

[begin of self-rant]

Actually I'm going to get something off my chest. I hear myself typing and I'm really starting to get tired of the whole "I'm an old school SEO, I've been doing this since 1975, I'm yadda yadda old guy" angle. I'm going to start shutting up about it. It really doesn't matter. I think being around a long time gives me some advantage in how I view SEO and the web ecosystem, in search trending and changes, and I have a lot of experience under my belt, but otherwise who cares. There are more important things to think about.

It's also really annoying to constantly hear someone tell you how they've been doing SEO since your mom was in high school (or something). So I'm going to stop talking about old school SEO. That's living in the past, what matters is right now. What am I doing NOW to contribute? That's the better perspective to take. It's all about what you can contribute and what sort of value you bring in the end; no one really cares how long you've been at it if you don't offer anything of value anyway.

[end of self-rant]

2) Teeny tiny Bend, Oregon (your home) actually has a surprisingly strong SEO footprint. Please describe.

There are a lot of really talented and experienced SEOs here. My father's company that I mentioned, MMG, was providing search marketing services early on. So it attracted a lot of young, smart people who were beginning in the industry: Derrick Wheeler (Microsoft), Marshall Simmonds and Adam Sherk (Define Search Strategies) Bill Hunt and Jeremy Sanchez (Global Strategies), Detlev Johnson and Andre Jensen who are independent consultants. Paul Owen of Marketleap fame also lives in Bend and hosts a weekly Tech Night with beer, video games, and all things geeky. Mark Knowles of Smart Solutions is here too.

Most of the original MMG folks still live in Bend, with the exception of Detlev (last time he visited he was thinking about moving back). I'm super proud of the Bend SEO 'scene' if you can call it that. Some really bad ass dudes. I think we should have some sort of annual conference or SEO advocacy event! With lots of beer.

3) How do you go about conceptualizing and developing your most excellent blog posts?

Thanks very much! They take tons of work. Usually I'll sketch an outline and slowly fill it out over the next week to ten days. It is definitely laborious, my writing style is to build, fix, tear down, build again, tweak, anguish and polish until I've got it how I like it. Lots of editing. I'll throw out an entire article and start over from scratch, and I'll often rework big sections of an article and change the order of things drastically. That's the only way I know how to write. It's not fun or easy to be honest, it's kinda painful. I need to find a better balance between very comprehensive, thorough articles and shorter, more typical blog posts. As it is now, I'm posting far too infrequently because I'm stuck in this track of developing really "big" posts instead of mixing in some shorter stuff. So I'm going to work on that.

For me it's really important to be structured and strategic too, so I started the blog with a lot of fundamental posts to set the basics down first. In time more and more advanced topics will build on that.

Coming back to the painful thing - writing is pure anguish for me. I can type out an interview like this and not worry too much about it, it's conversational and casual. If this were an article, I'd be screwed. It would take me a week of editing to finish.

4) We all know the Zappos folks from their strong Twitter presence. Not everyone knows that they engage you for SEO. Please talk about how Zappos has used SEO & Social Media to grow their business.

I'm on a plane to Las Vegas right now, visiting Zappos. I average about two trips a month to their offices.

Zappos is an amazing company in many ways. There are so many things they do that are innovative. They build a strong culture into everything they do; they really push their core values and customer service mindset into the employees at every level. There are many remarkable examples - here's one that recently got a lot of blog coverage: they've instituted a sort of bribe for new employees, where after a short period of time they'll offer you $1000 to quit. I think about 10% of employees take the money. What this does is filter out the ones who are there just for cash from the ones who are dedicated to the Zappos ideal.

They also put every single new employee through customer service training in Kentucky. It's a long process and it's expensive for them to sustain, but it keeps their customer service ideal at the forefront of the company culture. That's such a big differentiator for Zappos as a brand - they don't just say "customer service is important for us"... they live it, breath it, eat it, sleep it. They deliver. Pick up the phone sometime and call with a question about a product or something - you'll be amazed at the response! It's a real person sitting there in Las Vegas you're talking to, not someone farmed out from overseas.

There's a very purposeful directive to build social media interaction into their business model, and it comes right from the top with their CEO Tony Hsieh. He's involved in every aspect and department of the company, and that's a critical reason why they've done so well on Twitter for example. Tony drives awareness and builds connections with the internet community and his customers. He sits at a cube amid the other 500 or so folks in Las Vegas, he doesn't have a big office set apart. He's right there in the mix. He's a brilliant guy.

Their big project now is transitioning to a new design (http://zeta.zappos.com) which will incorporate more social shopping elements like reviews, user profiles, etc. They've been using the blogs on the site now (http://blogs.zappos.com) as a sort of experiment more than anything; these will likely be a bigger part of Zeta going forward.

The twitter page on Zappos (http://twitter.zappos.com) has been pretty huge for customer engagement and also for Tony and company to leverage some influential folks - they recently flew to the Bay area and hosted an impromptu party that was driven pretty much 100% by twitter.

I've worked with Zappos for about 8 years. I've done a lot of different things, from growing and managing their discussion list to helping with their social media department to helping build their SEO department. Right now we're focusing on building solid SEO into the current site and the zeta.zappos.com redesign, and working with a number of SEO consultants to bring in different perspectives. Actually, we're looking for a full-time SEO manager right now - if you're reading this and are interested, ping me about it! It's a pretty huge opportunity for someone, but you'll need to relocate to the Las Vegas area.

5) I've blogged before that I believe that SEO is much more of an art than a science. What is your take on this?

I couldn't agree more. SEO is an art because there are so many variables involved, and so many ways to combine different techniques, and much of it relies on creativity and intuition. Yes, intuition (I can hear all the cringing). Hear me out. I believe SEO takes intuition in a big way. Experience is huge, because a lot of what experienced SEOs *know* will work is a hunch. And sometimes we're wrong, so we try again. But eventually we're right, and the payoffs can be big. We combine it all together, different link building strategies and content strategies and promotions, and we build killer site architectures, and we get our clients #1 rankings. But if we were asked to show *exactly* what we did, at every step, we might have a hard time actually communicating it. Sure, we can outline the basic strategy, but what really happens is often a bit different. I can't count the number of times I've been working late night for a client and spotted some great link opportunity or gotten a reply (3 months late) by email from a partner site out of the blue that changed some of our strategy.

Of course we test, analyze, track, measure, and report. And that's the science part. But getting all that data is much more about the art side - the art of building links, designing sales copy, of building really solid architectures, finding untapped query spaces. That's probably why I love SEO so much more than PPC. Paid search is more about the science side of the equation. We use it a lot for our clients, but it's more mundane in a way than organic search.

SEO is a very creative discipline and demands a lot of open-minded thinking. That's the key to being a great search marketer. It's not about the little specifics necessarily (even if they're important). It's about painting a picture - and that takes a lot of work and paint and labor. Great SEOs work really, really hard. The best example of that I can think of is Aaron Wall.

Recently someone mentioned to me that SEO reminded him of programming. A great coder can come up with things that would never have occurred to a lesser coder.

6) SEO is an intangible service offered at a wide variety of price points. How do you show a prospective client value when many low cost alternatives exist to your services?

This is a key issue. If it comes down to commoditization, if what we're offering is based solely on price, we're dead in the water. That's missing the mark. Clients who don't realize that are short-sighted. It's not a commodity and different agencies, consultants and shops will charge vastly different rates. I know independent consultants charging a ridiculous amount of money - and they're worth every single penny. They could charge a company $15,000 for 2 hours of consultation and make that company $1 mil over the next year.

I've been lucky because we get a lot of referrals and work with really smart companies and businesses. But I've definitely been there, where I've felt like I was pitching something as a bid war. Screw that. If they don't get it, I move on, because there is endless demand and not enough really good SEOs to satisfy it, so eventually we'll end up working with the right people anyway. It's all about ROI. What's a $250k investment if it ends up making the company $5 mil? Companies that find a good ROI from SEO literally can't spend enough money.

I think it's important to either specialize and excel at something narrowly defined, or be able to unify various elements of a thing. That's why I like to work with specific vendors - a conversion optimization specialist, a link builder, a social media expert, etc. My company works with a lot of independent consultants in these areas. It's pretty critical to contract out work, but for our shop to differentiate itself the one thing we bring to the table that's unique is a unification of the various strategies and approaches. SEO, PPC, social media, site architecture, conversion analysis, email marketing - we can do it all. That gives us a unique angle because we have zero packaged service offerings - it's all custom - and we can offer various things for a company based on their business goals.

7) How do you show a prospective client the ROI of SEO?

I haven't had to do this much, as most of the leads we get already really understand SEO and are just looking for a good fit. Where we sometimes struggle is in showing the impact from what we've been able to bring to the table. We benchmark everything at the start when a client signs on - all the traffic metrics and revenue KPIs and we document it all, then we educate the client to let them know exactly where they are.

If possible, we attach a cost per conversion that we can use in organic SEO much like the typical ROAS we derive from PPC. What I've found to be very effective is regular reporting of progress and meetings with the company stakeholders. Very rarely I've sat in a meeting having to listen to a C-level tell me how they don't trust PPC, or what are we really tracking, or how are we gathering our data. I always let them talk and listen carefully, never trying to interrupt or defend myself. When they're finished, I tell them everything I know about it straight up. I think sometimes what they're looking for is acknowledgement or recognition that we're open to them questioning our SEO methodologies.

The more we accept those viewpoints and try to educate, to help, the better I've found our relationships to be. Defensiveness in these situations really looks bad.

8) How can SEO's dispel the myths and misinformation about our industry?

It's tough. We're portrayed as sleazy, as cheaters, as snake oil salesmen and women, as liars and fakes, as deceptors and magicians. SEO has a bad image in a lot of quarters. I don't see any easy answers. What I'd like to see is for SEO to evolve beyond the lowest common denominator you see sometimes on popular sites and forums. I like the "findability" angle that Peter Morville (an information architect) brings to the table, that designers are now starting to pick up on. And I like thinking about SEO as more than just search engines - as internet marketing. Lee Odden's "digital asset management" is spot on. We need to evolve past the small stuff and narrow mindedness. Sure, we can still focus almost totally on Google and SEO and make a lot of money, and we can even do it by engaging in shady tactics. But that'll get harder as the wild west begins to get developed.

There's this whole "magic" to SEO and "mystery" that needs to be dispelled. Newcomers have a really hard time finding actionable, reliable, consistent information about SEO. I think it's important to build good resources that can deliver that information in reliable ways. I like the Jane and Robot site that Nathan Buggia and Vanessa Fox came up with - basically giving web developers a platform to learn about SEO within that context.

I hear again and again at companies from designers and developers (and increasingly user experience people) that they just need something to go by, a reference, for what matters in SEO. A sort of "cheat sheet" they can use to guide decisions as they build stuff for their sites.

We really need to take SEO from the black magic phase into the "de facto" stage. Good title tags, good semantic markup on a page, these things should be standard practice. And I feel they will become that way, in time. SEOs who are getting by selling basic on-page optimization services - those things are going to become passe as the industry evolves. They already have.

9) How can a newbie SEO grow their visibility & influence in the SEO community?

For a newbie, I'd join SEO Book's private forum and read up there, I'd join SEOmoz and read everything, and I'd read High Rankings. I'll also throw the LED Digest in there. That will give you solid knowledge and allow you a chance to start posting comments and making a name for yourself. You should also hit up Sphinn and Cre8asite forums.

Then start a blog, get it professionally designed with a unique look, and write solid stuff. When you write something, reach out to people by email, IM and twitter. Speaking of twitter, add everyone you can who's in the SEO industry and start having a dialogue with them.

And you have to attend conferences, at least SMX and Pubcon. You'll meet people who are doing the same things, and you'll learn a huge amount.

Don't be afraid to reach out to people in high places. This industry is amazingly open and friendly, it's just a bunch of geeks doing fun internet stuff. There are no barriers to entry - smart people get noticed. Try to contribute the best you can and contact the people you admire and you might be surprised at how much they're willing to help.

When you make it big, you can return the favor :)

Hit up some blogs with established readerships for guest blogging. That can give you instant credibility.

10) While online marketers such as you and I are getting much more hyperconnected via the many platforms Social Media, we are becoming increasingly isolated from folks that aren't toking from the same pipe as we are. Is there a way to build a bridge back to these folks or will we stay on our own island?

What a great question. We'll probably stay on our island a bit. I see a split happening between the hyperconnected and the sort of normal people. In a way we're freaks. We're online all the time, we're using Twitter and Facebook, Linkedin and Digg, Delicious, Reddit, Sphinn, etc and we understand a particular use for each one. We get it. Trying to explain to someone the difference between Facebook and Linkedin for example is not easy unless they understand social media. Why should you add people to Linkedin after a conference instead of Facebook? why should you add your new drinking buddies to Facebook AND Linkedin when you get back? What do you use Delicious for vs Digg or Slashdot or Sphinn? These are confusing issues that for us are just part of the daily routine. The gulf is going to widen. Already people are really flummoxed by twitter. I know a super smart SEO, really experienced and savvy, who cannot figure out twitter. For him it's totally incomprehensible.

The interesting thing about the widening gulf between the hyperconnected and the normal, is the amount of influence the hyperconnected have. Look at a person like Tamar Weinberg (who's awesome). She has a huge amount of influence because of her position - she writes for some high-reach blogs and if you look at her twitter she's got a huge amount of followers. Getting exposure from an influencer like Tamar can be huge, and I bet it's going to get more important with time. Look at Digg, a very small percentage of the user base basically owns that site (it's gotten much better since their algorithm changed to reward less powerful accounts, but it's still weighted for the power accounts).

By nature of the web, the hyperconnected freaks will rule. The ones online the most with the most to contribute - especially in valuable ways - create the widest ripples and influence. In time these are the people who will lead the rest. It's already happening.

The geeks shall inherent the web. :)

July 9, 2008

Todd Mintz is the Director of Internet Marketing & Information Systems for S.R. Clarke Inc., a Real Estate Development and Residential / Commercial Construction Executive Search / Recruiting Firm headquartered in Fairfax, VA with offices nationwide. He is also a Director & Founding Member of SEMpdx: Portland, Oregon's Search Engine Marketing Association.


Well, I'm not so sure about the "rant" part as I'm part of that history. I'm probably and old-school guy, but I do believe that experience counts for a lot. Otherwise a great interview. Adam is a pretty capable guy -- but I may be biased.

John Audette
Bend, Oregon

"Adam absolutely qualifies as an SEO thought-leader and is absolutely one of the nicest people in this industry."

You're right on with that statement, Todd. This was one of the best interviews I've ever read. Plenty of interesting personal-side stuff as well as actionable advice. What a great read; thanks for putting it together and thanks to Adam for spending so much time to answer the questions thoughtfully.

Nice interview Todd and Adam. I personally liked your rant Adam. I too am old school but knowing how to optimize for alta vista is not much use these days. As you said seo involves so much more now. I love Bend, quite a group of seos from there.

note to self: sit at same lunch table as Todd Mintz and maybe get an interview. That and buy Adam beer. :)

Awesome interview -- and thanks so much for the mention, Adam. :)

Great interview questions Todd, and even better answers, Adam. Hope to see you again at SearchFest 2009...

Todd Mintz is the man! Thanks for the comments everyone. This was a really fun interview but took me way too long to finish (I was about 2 months late with the responses). Todd's questions required a lot of thought.

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Search Engine Guide > Todd Mintz > Adding Value To The Search Community: My Interview With Adam Audette