MARK: We’re sitting here with Aaron Wall of the famous SEO book and beyond, for The History of SEO. Boy you’re a huge influence on the SEO folks out there. One of the things we’re doing at The History of SEO is trying to back up in folks careers prior to when they were doing SEO, talk about that a little bit, and then move into that inspiration moment of how you got into SEO, and the story from there. One of the take-aways for folks would be that if they are thinking about getting started or they’ve been assigned this task, that they can read about some of the industry leaders and how they got their start, and it could serve as an inspiration that, “Hey yeah, it’s a little hard but it’s a lot of fun. Come on in.”
AARON: Alright. Well thanks for having me. Do you want to start with when I got started in SEO and how that stuff sort of worked out?
MARK: Yeah. What were you doing prior to any SEO work?
AARON: After high school I joined the military; just after graduation. Then I was an operator on a submarine for about six years. Then I got out of the military and I started learning web stuff a little bit, and I had kind of a mid-level management sort of job when I was first doing SEO stuff, then I quit that job when I was making one hundred dollars a month off of the web. That was in the 2003 time frame.
MARK: What was the position in the navy?
AARON: Nuclear Reactor Operator.
MARK: A Nuclear Reactor Operator. Wow. Ok.
AARON: Warning. (Laughs) It sounds more exciting than it was.
MARK: And a hundred dollars a month, once you saw that reoccurring revenue, is that what got you going?
AARON: Well I saw that it was easy to grow, so I really went after it. But if I went half way, it wasn’t going to work that well. I had that other job as a mid-level manager and I was on salary, so I was like three hours from my boss, so I would overwork and do a lot there. I always work too hard, so I figured I may as well work my ass off for myself and hopefully that would work out.
MARK: So what were you doing to earn one hundred dollars a month?
AARON: I had some cheesy affiliate stuff, and when I say I made a hundred a month that’s actually an artificially low number because I was making more than that, but I always spent a lot on learning because I figured you couldn’t spend too much on learning because it would come back over time. Maybe I was making a thousand or something, but then I would buy information products, go to conferences, and all kinds of other stuff. It was like I was breaking even, but I my knowledge was growing quickly.
MARK: Right, and you were getting all of this experience. And it was through affiliate marketing in 2003.
AARON: Yeah. I did affiliate marketing then. I did some client stuff as well, but not as much because what happened was towards the end of 2003 when Google did their update Florida. I wrote an article that got pretty popular and I went from not getting many leads to getting more leads than I could handle, but even then most of the clients really weren’t ideal; plus I wasn’t the best at handling client services back then, especially after some of the popularity died down a month or two later. I saw the traditional consulting sort of model, is kind of feast or famine unless you are just a really great sales man. I didn’t really like sales that much per-say, so I thought there should be a product in-between the point of hiring a consultant and just learn everything on your own. That’s kind of where the model for selling an e-book on SEO came out of.
MARK: It’s an excellent book.
AARON: Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.
MARK: What is you distribution like? Or is that a private number?
AARON: Actually when I first created it I made it easy to pirate, because I believed that the anti-piracy stuff would just put walls between myself and paying customers.
AARON: It was free marketing, so the number is actually much larger than how many I have already sold but it was somewhere around 13,000.
AARON: Those were sold, and then I gave away some to non-profits and piracy, so it was probably more like 50,000 or something.
MARK: (Laughs) Ok, so we’ve got a guy going to conferences, reading all he can, learning stuff, making a little bit of money through affiliate programs, and then plunking along writing a book. Now you’ve got book sales coming in. I assume your affiliates still growing. When was that and what was next?
AARON: That was actually early to mid 2004. I actually gave it away for Christmas in 2003, launched it for sale in February of 2004; and I just sold a few here and there off the start. I was like, “Hey that’s cool. Whatever.” Then over time I just kept selling more and more. Then we still had a bit of affiliate site stuff, and had a couple clients, not a lot, that I was doing reoccurring work for. Then I also invested in some sites where we did stuff like direct add sales and that sort of thing. So it was a nice variety of income streams.
MARK: So if maybe one falls off for a little bit the other one carries you through.
AARON: Yeah, that’s the goal. If you have ten income streams and have the top nine dry up and still be fine, then you are in a good position. We’re not quite there but we’re heading towards it hopefully.
MARK: (Laughs) Right. So what kinds of challenges arose?
AARON: The biggest thing, well, I really didn’t fit the military well because I am more of a creative time than like a machine type, so the model of doing the real repetitive stuff didn’t work that well for me, but the stuff that worked well was that I always liked trying to help people. One of the big mistakes I made from that was when I sold the e-book, a lot of times I would provide support, and people would ask for more and more and more. I actually was probably almost ignorant to how big and deep of a flaw that was until I met my wife about two years ago, and then it’s like the perspective of, “Hey I could keep providing all of this support to other people or I could just work more to build some of our own sites out and see how that works.” So we did a lot that way and it’s been good. Then also I changed the model of the SEO book in February of this year (’08) and it changed to a membership model, such that if people really care for my opinion they can pay for it. If they don’t care enough to pay then it much not matter much to them. It kind of sounds arrogant, but at the same time you only have so much time and if you really focus on building good sites and good niches there are tons of opportunities still available even in this day and age.
MARK: Yeah, I wouldn’t take that as arrogant. I think that your opinion is valuable and there are certain folks where it’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Other times, there are lots of different things you can do on the internet and maybe it doesn’t apply, but I don’t think it’s arrogant for you to think that your opinion is valuable because I know that we’ve received some value from it.
AARON: We still blog. I recently hired on a blogger too and he is doing pretty good. He started about two weeks ago. He is helping keep that site going and he’s always in the forums there helping out and working on our other sites and stuff.
MARK: Now are you a company? Or two or three of you?
AARON: I have a partner in another LLC, and we do a bit of high rank corporate consulting type of thing. We only take on a few clients now and then, not a lot. And my wife and I work together on our stuff, and a lot of the people who help us with our projects are actually from overseas so it’s pretty easy to do it all. Like an LLC sort of thing rather than having to be a full on company and all of that good stuff.
MARK: If people want to read your daily blog or your most current writings, this is a website plug here, where can they find you?
AARON: www.seobook.com, I do some of the writing and then I also have a writer who does a lot of great writing there too. I help him come up with ideas and that sort of stuff for what to write about. Most of the time though I am in our members forums in community and trying to build out the membership area of the site.
MARK: And what part of the country are you located in?
AARON: Oakland, California.
MARK: Oakland, California. And what is your membership fee?
AARON: It is currently a hundred dollars a month. One of the good things about the site is, I haven’t tried growing it to the point of having billions of members, so our current cap on our membership is 1,000 active members. So it’s pretty easy for me to go into the forums and help answer the questions, and actually the price of admission filters out a lot of the people who might participate on some other forums and promote nothing but spamming, cookie pushing, affiliate programs, and that sort of nastiness. It’s my favorite forum I have ever been a part of, so the charge for admission thing is a really good filter to get really good membership quality. Everybody is really helpful there, so that actually worked out way better than I even anticipated it being.
MARK: There are a whole lot of folks that would not be able to do that.
AARON: Would not be able to what?
MARK: They would not be able to charge a monthly fee. You have to establish yourself like you have.
AARON: Yeah, it’s a process, that’s the thing. Popularity, celebrity, market demand etc., all that is a function, I mean some of it is just there’s demand in the market place, but if you want to be a non-commodity and charge non-commodity prices you have to develop some popularity. Then you would basically use price as a mechanism to charge for it or, if you’re like I was a couple years ago, you could try to help everybody for free, but it turns out that if people don’t pay they actually don’t even value your opinion a lot of times anyway. Especially if they want personalized help, or personalized advice, and they want it for free it’s like they’re crapping down your throat; they just don’t care about you. It's one thing for a person to say, “Hey that person has a good blog. I read it and its good stuff,” but it’s another if it’s like, “Help me build my business. I give you nothing but waste your time.” (Laugh) You know? I used to try to help people a lot, even people like that. Not so much anymore. Every day I have people on GoogleTalk or GoogleChat like, “Person X invites you to chat,” or like, “Dear Sirs, make me money.” I just have to tune it all out, you know?
MARK: Right. That stuff has to be in balance.
AARON: Yeah, well I was really bad at that. Like I said, until I met my wonderful wife I didn’t realize how much leeway I gave on some of that sort of stuff. Now that people pay for advice they actually care and listen. It’s serving a higher end of the market than I used to before; it’s basically like hiring a consultant on a retainer, but you can interact with the forum daily vs. committing many thousands of front to a traditional SEO model or my old price point, which was fairly low, and people would just keep asking for more and more and more, and I stopped scaling as a person.
MARK: Right, you are only one guy.
AARON: Yeah, and when you have over ten thousand paying customers plus tons of other people bugging you, it’s a bit hard to manage (laughs).
MARK: I remember there was one page, I can’t remember when I was surfing around, but I found a page that was “Click here, put in your visa number, its $500, I’ll talk to you for one hour.” I was always curious, it’s kind of an interesting conversion page and I always wondered, “How many people does Aaron meet that way?”
AARON: Now that I have the membership sight I try to promote that angle more, and I don’t promote that offer so heavily, but I used to promote that offer more heavily on the blog, and when I did I was selling on average, not on weekends just weekdays, almost one a day; probably 4 to 5 a week.
AARON: But then I was doing a lot of those and trying to switch over the site, and I’m always doing more than I should on the work front. So what we did is rather than pushing that too hard on SEOBook, we actually offered that over on another site which actually acts almost as a barrier friction point to lower demands. Then we changed it from an hour to an hour and a half and then my partner and I do the call together, and we charge $1,200 for an hour and a half. People still buy them but nowhere near as often as when I was marketing it more aggressively on the SEOBook site.
MARK: Who is your partner?
AARON: It’s Scott Smith; His nick name is Cave Man.
MARK: Oh, yeah, ok.
AARON: He’s well known on WebmasterWorld and some other areas. He is a pretty sharp guy.
MARK: And are you guys both in Oakland or do you work across the country?
AARON: We’re in Oakland now. We have flown for client project stuff, but generally not much.
MARK: Nice. So we talked about some of the challenges. What do you just love doing? What is the thing that makes you lose track of time because you’re having too much fun.
AARON: Um, playing Lego video games with my wife on Nintendo. (Laughs) We just got Lego Batman in yesterday, so that’s pretty fun. We haven’t played it yet, but we’ve played the Star Wars and that’s fun. We have a nice dog too and we always go for walks around the lake near where we live. Sometimes we play sports stuff, like catch and whatnot. I’m a pretty mellow home-body guy now. The big thing is that I still do play too much internet, but eventually we’ll start cutting that back. We have a bit already but we still need to more.
MARK: What about during a work day? What are the kinds of activities that are the most fun?
AARON: I think it’s like when you know you’ve helped someone else out. There was one guy who joined our forum and he had a WordPress site and his blog got hacked like six months ago, and between then and now he had contacted like 50 SEO firms. Didn’t engage all of them, but tried engaging with at least a couple of them, and they took his money and never even fixed his problem. All you had to do was do a site search on his site, and then add words like Paxil, Zoloft, you know it got spammed to bits. So I handed out a couple hours after the guy joined. He basically pleaded for help because he was already done and he was frustrated and desperate because he had tried so many people. So I looked and I was like, “Oh dude, your blog got hacked. Look here, blah, blah, blah.” Then he got that fixed and his sight already came back. So it’s when you know you did five or ten or fifteen minutes of work for somebody and that produced thousands of hours of results for them, it really justifies, “Hey I could charge way more than I do. I give people a lot of value and they’re really getting help from it, and they’re really happy from the purchase.” So it’s knowing you can help people that’s fun. The other thing that’s fun is when you come up with marketing ideas and launch them and they do better than they expected. You know, when you launch big link bates and that sort of stuff. I also like doing some of the market research sort of stuff, like picking out domain names, hunting out keywords, and trying to figure out the structure stuff. I like really doing the big ideas. You know, seeing if you can enter a market kind of late that is already saturated and come up with a way to help beat up the current leaders to where you take an ownership position at market, you know?
MARK: Are you always selling electronic media, or do you also do physical shipment?
AARON: We did have some physical shipment stuff, but the truth was that the scalability of that model for us was a bit rough, so we actually shifted away from doing that. Most of our sights are leads, affiliates, you know, SEOBook is still kind of an information product membership site. Then I did a partnership with WordTracker for a keyword guide and that’s kind of a lower price point item; I think it’s $39, but again I think it has a lot of value for consumers that buy it. So it’s not like any one model is like, “Ok, this is all we do.” We try to mix it around quite a bit.
MARK: Where can people find that book?
AARON: I think they moved the URL somewhere else than where it initially was, but I’ll give you a URL that may or may not work (laughs) and then I’ll tell you how to search for it.
MARK: Ok, we can always follow up email and I’ll fix this part.
AARON: Search Google for something like “Kick Ass Keyword Guide.”
MARK: Oh, gotchya. So let’s say we have someone on the side, and they’ve just decided or their boss has said, “Hey we need someone to get into SEO,” and they are on the quest to learn everything they can so that they can help their website move forward and generate traffic and revenue; maybe it’s their own site and they are self employed. Maybe they are like you where it was part time and now they are ready to get serious. There have been a lot of things going on in the last twelve or thirteen years, how would you recommend they get started? If you were to prescribe to them the first year of activity, what would that be?
AARON: I think a lot of it depends on the individual’s strengths and interests. That is a big piece that a lot of people hose. Anytime someone gives you an “easy bake” formula that is “precisely easy to follow and applies to everyone” it’s generally probably crap. I’ll try to break down the smaller newer guy. Assuming they don’t have a website, the first thing I would probably do, assuming it’s a market they’re interested in and would like to learn about, I would set up a blog about the topic so they could start writing about the topic, learning about the topic, participating and communicating with people in the topic, and start developing social relationships. Then as you learn the topic more, look for a business model. So like, I had a site that I was doing a bit of SEO consulting off of and then with the SEOBook model I didn’t know to do that off the start, and it probably would be a bad model for a lot of markets, but it was a decent one for that market; but a lot of it comes down to learning what the market wants and listening and getting to know the market. So I would say that anyone who is starting out fresh and new can’t spend too much time learning your market. You don’t want to just learn it, you want to make sure you are participating in it and that you start building up assets on line, like link equity built up and social relationships built up, that sort of stuff. Then different types could be marketed in different ways. It depends on the area they’re in. In some areas getting a strong domain name can help, in other areas doing deep keyword research could help. Another tip along that front is whatever you do make sure you do whatever you can to track it right away. There will always be ups and downs, but tracking to see where you are gaining traction helps a lot. So you can set up GoogleLearch to see if other people talk about you or your brand or your company, and you can also have analytics on your website and start looking through how you are getting traffic, from where, and why. Depending on how much capital you have, there are services like Compete.com where you can look at top keywords sending traffic to competing sites. Part of it comes down to how much capital you have. The more capital you have, the more you can use capital to do part of your work for you; like buy a strong domain name, do tons of competitive research up front, hire a PR firm and/or someone who is good at link bate who could do some publicity stuff for you. So it really depends. You can do everything yourself and do well, but you can also use capital to help speed it along. As far as books I would read right away, Seth Goden’s The Purple Cow is good. The Clue Train Manifesto is a good book for understanding the web as a market. Also, Steven Crug has a book called Don’t Make Me Think, which is about usability. The combination of those three would give you a pretty strong footing for generally how the web works and a bit about online marketing stuff. Then from there you could pick one niche at a time and try to learn it. You could spend a month or a few months learning SEO stuff, or you could spend a bunch of time just trying to learn public relations and PR stuff. At the end of the day when you find something that is working well for you, keep pushing hard.
MARK: I noticed you were so modest, you didn’t even recommend your own book, which we will do (laughs).
AARON: Yeah, well actually our training forum is a lot better because you can ask for people to review your site. You can be like, “Hey your page titles are hosed up,” or “Hey you’ve got a lot of duplicate content,” or “Hey you’re missing keywords in this area.” That is another thing with websites, if your website is like every other website it is sort of hard to enter the game late and compete, so you have to have points of differentiation like marketing. So anyone who has a website that is kind of like eBay, but a miniaturized version, or if it’s just a platform where people can buy crap, it’s kind of hard to enter the market and do well. You need to be a bit more like Amazon where there is attempted value ads such as customer reviews, editorial reviews, and that sort of stuff. Then also, if you can have brand oriented stuff, lead content, stuff about your market where there is opportunity there but people haven’t covered it yet. We have a lot of common questions on the SEO space that still aren’t fully answered publicly very well, so if you find some of those sorts of questions you can create beneficial answers for that sort of query and do a bit of push marketing by mentioning it via email to some people who publish in that space. “Hey I wrote this, I’d love to get your opinion on it,” that sort of stuff. Some of them may like it, some of them may not, but that is how you start to build up a bit of traction. Participating in the social elements like going to conferences off line if there are any, and doing any online networking like forums, communities, blog stuff, it all helps. The idea is if you’re a thin listing site, if you are like a compacted data site, it’s going to be really hard for you to compete on the web because that is the sort of value that some of the big e-commerce players and some of the search services are trying to take over. The more you have all unique trusted brands, the more you have valuable editorial content, the more you are doing creative stuff, those are the kind of things that will set a site apart for a long time and allow it to keep competing for years, and years.
MARK: When you were talking earlier about link equity, how would you recommend someone take that one? What is that? How do you get started?
AARON: Well, there are a couple directories I would use off the start for a lot of sites, like business.com, Yahoo.com, Bestoftheweb.com. That can give you a start on foundational link building. Then “links represent relationships,” is a way of understanding it. So if you have off-line business relationships, like you have business providers, retailers, and try to get links from some of those sorts of people. Maybe the guy who designed your website will be willing to list it in his web design gallery. Then from there, understanding the web as a market and that market places are dominated by conversation, and people want to converse and talk about stuff. Understanding that links and search engines end up following people in conversation, from that element or that mindset, you can come up with some strategies for how you can get people to talk about you. In the past it was easy to just buy your way with the links, and for some sites and some spaces it still is, but if you can come up with mechanisms where other people want to talk about you or other people want to link to you, that’s where you’ll do well. Ideally, without knowing anything about your market, if I can tell you just a generalization and “Hey this is what will work,” ideally, that is not going to be the best strategy for your market. There are core principals, like contests, egos, and that sort of stuff that you can apply to, but beyond that its where you really know your market well, where you know it down cold, that will really help you build a competitive advantage on the link front. A lot of it comes down to just establishing relationships and knowing your market better than the next guy.
MARK: If you enter into a new market, how much trial and error time do you spend? A whole lot up front or you used to do that and now you can hone in faster?
AARON: I think it’s arrogant to say that you can always know what’s going to work. A lot of times you can read markets, see markets, and see underlying stories, and write related stuff and kind of promote them aggressively. Sometimes you are lucky to get a link or two for it, sometimes you get a big goose egg, sometimes you get a hundred. So, nobody is going to hit a thousand and get them all correct and do well with everything. It’s just about realizing that even if it doesn’t do amazingly well, you still have that content net value and you can just keep plugging away, and if 20% of them do well you’re ok, if 50% of them do well you’re doing really great, and so on. It’s not about having perfected formula, it’s about trying to get in that direction as much as you can but willing to accept that sometimes it doesn’t work out and you just have to keep going after it.
MARK: And people shouldn’t get discouraged when their first three ideas aren’t home runs.
AARON: Exactly, yeah. It might be not just your fourth idea; it might be your fourth website before you are profitable.
MARK: Right. What do you think about the conferences for a new person getting started?
AARON: My favorite one is probably the Link Retreat, but it’s kind of expensive. It’s not so much a conference; it’s more of a seminar. Beyond that, I like PubCon because the price point is a bit lower than a lot of the others, and it has a lot of the independent web master affiliate types there. I think SES tends to be more toward the corporate end, so that’s kind of lower on the list. Then SMX is somewhere between WebmasterWorld’s PubCon and SES; it’s almost a bit of cross over.
MARK: But those would all be good, depending on where you were?
AARON: Yeah, if you were a corporate add guy, then SES is the spot for you. If you are just starting out on your own I would lean more towards SMX, or PubCon.
MARK: Got it. You’ve been super helpful. I think our readers and listeners are going to enjoy this very much. Do you have anything else you would like to add? Did I leave any important stuff out?
AARON: I guess one other thing I would say towards the part with the market research stuff, is if you plan on being largely an SEO play, you still have to have some sorts of ideas that differentiate you outside of SEO to keep people talking about you, that gives you a sustained competitive advantage. If you want to see how well established one of the competing sites are, there is a plug in named SEO For Firefox that you can use to see how many links some of the competing sites have, how old they are, and how many pages they have. It at least gives you a baseline of how competitive the market is.
MARK: So you know what you are getting into?
AARON: Yeah. There are some variations to stuff where it may not seem like it makes sense why one site ranks because maybe it has good anchor text, and the next one is maybe the domain name, but it at least gives you a baseline where you can see what a lot of sites are doing.
MARK: Are you going to SMX East, or PubCon?
AARON: I am actually speaking at a conference right before SMX, so I won’t be there. I think I will be at PubCon though.
MARK: I’d love to buy you a beer.
AARON: (Laughs) Alright.
MARK: Well, if you don’t mind we’ve got another piece of work that we are going to do on this site and that might lead to a follow up with you at a later date. Do you have any objection to that?
AARON: No, that should be fine.
MARK: Alright. Thank you so much again for your time. I really really appreciate it.
AARON: Alright, have a great day.
MARK: Take care Aaron.