The History of Search: Mark Knowles Interviews Barry Schwartz


MARK:
Wow, it’s been a while. PubCon was a Blast. We’re sitting here with Barry Schwartz, president of RustyBrick; he’s also news editor at Search Engine Land and the executive editor at the Search Engine Round Table, and a well respected SEO professional who’s been at it quite a while.

BARRY:
That is true; quite a while.

MARK:
One of the things we like to do is back up to the beginning of your career to whatever it was that you were doing before you got involved in search engine marketing, and kind of walk people through how you got started. I know for you we’re probably back in the early ‘90s; ’93, ’94?

BARRY:
Yes, I started with web stuff back in 1994.

MARK:
And what kind of things were you doing back then?

BARRY:
Basically, my brother and I started building out small websites for local businesses. We were just about out of high school. Then when we finished high school we pretty much, in college, formed a business specializing in websites and web software. That was in 1996 or ’97? From there we signed up a lot of clients, we did some e-commerce, some really boring back office solutions, and that was really our core, building out web software with back office solution. But then we had some e-commerce clients that were interested in obviously ranking well in the search engines, and getting more exposure from the search engines. Back then it wasn’t really about linking, it was more about submission and all of those fun things back in the day of the 1990’s. Then over time it got more interesting and we started looking into link building and how you can structure pages and all of this other stuff, and we helped those clients make their sites search engine friendly and find an SEO professional to do link building and all that fun stuff. I don’t remember how long ago that was, but it was sometime around early 2000.

MARK:
How did you get introduced to that world? Was it a conference or a website or a blog or a book?

BARRY:
In terms of me contributing to the community, I don’t remember what I actually read originally, but I know I started off at a forum called SEO Chat, which was run by Darren Ward back in the day; 2002 or so. That was the first time I really participated in the SEO community, per say. So it started with me back then in 2002 or so at SEOchat.com, which was then a year or two later purchased by Developer Shed Network, and then about a year ago it was purchased again by a well known media company and the whole entire Developer Shed Network from Developer Shed. Back then at SEOchat I quickly gained interest helping people and stuff like that and I became a moderator there. Then in 2003, I started Search Engine Round Table; there are tons of forums out there and I view them today and there is a lot more search engine forums out there, this was basically a way of allowing people to read one source to find all of the best forum posts out there. A lot of the stuff you see in the forums are sometimes just noise, so what the Search Engine Round Table does in the doings of 2003, was basically looking through all of the forum threads out there using our monitoring systems and our intuition, and finding the best threads and the best discussions out there so you don’t have to go to hundreds of forums out there and read thousands of posts everyday to figure out what you should read and what you shouldn’t read.

MARK:
That’s a pretty big time saver for a lot of people.

BARRY:
Yeah, a lot of people enjoy it. I originally started that just as a notebook for keeping track of the best threads that I’ve found, and it really turned into one of the top industry blogs out there.

MARK:
And folks can check that out by going to http://www.seroundtable.com

MARK:
Is it a free sign up for notifications and things like that?

BARRY:
There you can sign up via email if you want to get daily emails, or if you just want subscribe to the RSS feed, or you can just bookmark it and go to it every day; whatever you’re more comfortable doing.

MARK:
That’s excellent. So you have this software development background, brings you into the web and then into search, and you joined with SEOchat, and then what happened next? I’ve seen you at a lot of conferences, when did you first get inspired to go meet all of these people?

BARRY:
Obviously as you participate more in the search community, you want to meet the people. So 2003, I think was the first time I went to a conference; it was SES Chicago. It was pretty small back then. It was enjoyable to see all the people. When you start blogging you start talking to people online, it’s different than actually meeting them in person, so obviously going to the conferences does give you that extra level of appreciation as to what the SEM community is all about. I started in conferences around 2003 sometime, I think the first one was SES Chicago, and I’ve been going to several conferences, from SES to SMX to WebMasterWorld, all over the world actually. I’ve been to Sweden; I run the one in Israel, obviously New York, California, Seattle; all over America. So there are lots of conferences out there and they’re pretty time consuming. It’s enjoyable.

MARK:
Looking back what would you see as some of the most memorable moments in the search world? Either a challenging project or something that happened that was notable.

BARRY:
Oh there are so many things that have happened. If you want to just look at the SEO community, per say, one of the most significant things that happened, I don’t know if you guys know, but basically in 2005 Gary Price got a job at Ask.com and I stepped up and took over his role at Search Engine Watch working with Danny Sullivan as the news editor for Search Engine Watch. Towards 2006 Danny Sullivan decided to go solo and break off of the site that he started, which was Search Engine Watch, and start a new site called Search Engine Land because he couldn’t agree with the new owners of the site Search Engine Watch. So we started a new site, I think in December 2006 or 2007, searchengineland.com. So Danny Sullivan, myself, Chris Sherman, Greg Sterling, and a few others all got up from searchenginewatch.com and went over with Danny Sullivan to searchengineland.com to start building a new resource for search news and tips. Basically Danny Sullivan dropping his baby, searchenginewatch.com, and moving over to a new site with a whole new look and feel was something major because a lot of the people who joined the SE community and started learning about search really got their start from Danny’s site Search Engine Watch, or from Danny’s conferences, or from his forum and for him to leave his baby, which he started probably now over twelve years ago, really sent a big ripple through the SEO community basically to show his commitment towards the SEO community in doing what he thinks is right for the SEO community. That was one of the biggest things in the SEO industry for me personally.

MARK:
I’ve heard him referred to as the “grandfather of SEO,” yet he’s a pretty young guy (laughs) for that title. Everyone I talk to has roots back to Danny.

BARRY:
Pretty much anybody involved in the SEO community should have some type of root back to Danny Sullivan; that’s definitely true.

MARK:
So who are the other early folks? You mentioned Danny, and he’s mentioned a lot; do you know some other folks that you’ve leaned on from time to time to get a question answered or you’ve worked with, or respect their work?

BARRY:
Oh there are so many. Obviously Gary Price; he’s been a big role model for myself in terms of work ethic and stuff like that. Chris Sherman has been around for a really long time working with Danny. Mike Grehan, he’s one of the first people to really dig deep into the algorithms and write about how the search algorithms work and do interviews with various people who wrote the algorithms to give SEOs the insight on how they could use the knowledge from the algorithms to improve their search rankings. He wrote a very popular book back in the day that got a lot of people involved in the algorithms of the SEO world. Obviously there is Jill Whalen who’s known as the “white hat of white hats.” She was very involved in how to write content for search engines, and how to do search engine friendly design. There is Shari Thurow… I feel bad naming names because there are just so many people who I have physically dealt with in the SEO community; from Kim Krause to Brett Tabke at Web Master World. There are just so many. I could keep going forever.

MARK:
(Laughs) One of the things we’re hoping to do is get all of those interviews from those early folks up on The History of SEO so new folks coming in can get to know these people. I think what is kind of fascinating is when you learn how each person got involved, and then you look at your own situation it’s a lot less daunting. I think you can walk away saying, “Gosh, this person is just like me. I could do this.” The industry is growing. It seems like a lot of hands are going up at the conferences when they ask, “Who is here for the first time?” It seems to me 40% of the audiences hands go up and there is a lot of these new people who are just getting started; I’m trying to get them some words of encouragement as they listen to how experts like you got their start, and also the methods that you used. I think conferences have been extremely beneficial; I’ve been going to them for quite a while and I really like the people, it’s a lot of fun, there are a lot of intelligent fun people, and no place like a conference can you see them all at the same time.

BARRY:
Right. For example, like you were just saying with people feeling like, “I’m just like you and I can actually do that myself.” It’s true. If you take a look at, in my terms, some of the recent additions to SEO stardom, or whatever you want to call it, you have people who are “newish” in my mind like Rand Fishkin from SEOmoz. He’s a pretty big SEO star now, but he came onto the scene as far as I know a couple years ago; maybe 2005 or 2006? I forget exactly when it was, and he really skyrocketed. He provided a great resource at SEOmoz and his company is doing very, very well. He’s highly in demand. He goes to these conferences and everybody wants to talk to him. It could happen to anybody as long as you are true to yourself and true to the community. You can definitely make a big impact in the actual SEO community and rise to the stars. Same thing with Aaron Wall, who was before Rand Fishkin, he came on learning the way everyone else did, going to the forums, speaking to people at the conferences, started his own SEObook.com, and he continues to update that and it really brought him to stardom. He is highly in demand. I remember reading one of the first additions of SEObook, and I’m like, “Oh I can’t do a review,” because it was so badly written and I didn’t agree with everything in there, but over time he really improved it and made such a great name for himself by proving to his clients and to the SEO community how valuable he really is; now to hire the guy I think it costs an arm and a leg to get him to sit down and talk to you. These are definitely people you should look at and say, “Hey, wow, they did it. There is no reason why a new person coming into the industry can’t do it as well.”

MARK:
Right. We haven’t connected with Rand yet, but we do have Aaron Wall’s interview coming shortly.

BARRY:
Oh great. That will be interesting to listen to.

MARK:
Yeah it really is. I love that part. Everybody’s beginnings are just fascinating.

BARRY:
I think Aaron Wall came in with not so much money into this. I think he was one of the people who was known as someone who couldn’t spend so much money to do link building or whatever it was, then he really built up his business in no time. It was really nice to see; going from having no money to do a website, now he has tons of money and resources to build out any website he wants and dominate that market as far as I understand it.

MARK:
(Laughs) I think you are right.

BARRY:
So it’s great to see things like that. I’ve been tracking this industry for years now and it’s great to see people pop up with nothing and really make something magical with their talent.

MARK:
We have this one big event in pretty recent history where Danny broke away from the company he founded or “his baby,” started Search Engine Land and the whole SMX series etc, what other key events would you think of looking back?

BARRY:
Specifically looking at the SEM community again, I would look at SEMPO. I think SEMPO started back in 2003-2004 as the first industry organization behind the SEO industry; obviously organic search to paid search. They really went through a lot of struggling times to get the support of the SEO community as well as get the backing of the whole world in terms of SEO being an industry. SEM, paid search, it’s not just magical stuff that’s done by a guy behind his desk sitting in a dark room and doing magic potions and making rankings come to the top. They actually are validating our industry. Obviously there were a lot of debate and a lot of issues early on, building the organization, but now as people look back at you can see I think just a few weeks ago on December 1st they actually went ahead and rang the bell at the NASDAQ to open up the market. So, to see it go so far so quickly and become so popular that they are actually able to go and ring a bell at the NASDAQ it’s pretty impressive. Obviously the rise of Google and the rise of the search industry as a whole had a lot to do with it, but at the same time it’s very nice to see that happen in our industry.

MARK:
I can’t remember but I’ll have to check on when they were founded. I know it’s relatively new but I’ll have to get the exact date recorded at thehistoryofseo.com.
BARRY: It should be on their website hopefully.

MARK:
Yeah, we’re a member there as well. So, these new folks are coming in, let’s just imagine someone shows up at your door and you’ve just hired them and they don’t know anything about SEO and you want to get them moving forward as fast and as efficiently as possible, how would you line them out for the next several months?

BARRY:
Good question. Really it’s about understanding the basics. I would probably have them read some of those basic books on how to build a search engine friendly website. What are the most important factors from title tags to meta descriptions to basic linking structures, making sure not to use frames, making sure not to use flash and why that’s important, to understand the reason why and how a search engine actually crawls the web and to understand the link structure of the web and obviously how important links are, and all that type of stuff. Once they understand the fundamentals, then its about teaching them how to use the tools on the web to leverage everything they can in terms of improving their rankings and improving all of those fundamentals and building more upon that.

MARK:
Do you have a couple book titles that come to mind?

BARRY:
I think Shari Thurow’s book, Search Engine Friendly Design is a very good beginner book. It’s very easy to understand. You don’t have to be so technical to learn it or read it. It goes through things in a very organized way. I haven’t read an SEObook in a while but I know a lot of people got their start on there so I would definitely take a look at that as well. So I think those two books; Shari Thurow’s Search Engine Friendly Design, and SEObook.com are very good started guides. There is an SEOmoz article on the basics, or I guess search engine optimization. It’s laid out very well and it’s also free as well and it’s a great guide on how to do SEO. Again I’d probably start with Search Engine Friendly Design, read it over the weekend and then play around a little bit, look at the code and see what those pieces are, and then take a look at SEObook and SEOmoz, their books and their guides on how to actually rank well in the search engine space. And once you have that under your pack, then it’s time to start getting your feet wet in the SEO community by joining forums, like Sphinn or Web Master World, or any of the forums out there, there are tons of them. Find which one is actually good for you and then have fun. Ask questions, answer questions, become a part of the industry. Then you’ll find which conference you want to go to based on the community you’re active with. If it’s Web Master World you’ll probably go to PubCon first, if it’s Sphinn you’ll probably go to Search Marketing Expo, if you’re into Search Engine Watch you’ll probably go to SES. There are lots of different conferences out there and usually people go to the conference that they’re a part of, in terms of what community they participate in. Some people go straight to a conference, that’s if their company pays for it. It really depends on the structure of how you want to do it. You can always read about conference coverage. We do a lot of live blogging at seroundtable.com, so you can read about the different conferences and the different presentations they had in the past, and maybe what you can actually see in the future.

MARK:
Right, I’ve seen you there. It’s amazing what you do. I know a lot of people that can’t go. It’s kind of nice to know that you can just catch up with Barry later if you couldn’t attend that particular session, he’s got that thing blogged pretty well. So if they don’t thank you, I’m doing it for them right now (laughs).

BARRY:
Oh that’s great.

MARK:
I’m trying to think of what’s next. These new folks have read these books, they’ve gone to a conference now, and I suppose they have a project; I usually ask folks to take on something with a local twist first. It’s a little less competitive and you can start to have some success; chase the long tail first and then tighten it up from there. But do you have any project strategies in terms of beginning points?

BARRY:
Since I write a lot about search engines at Search Engine Land and at the Search Engine Roundtable, and several other sites, I do speak a lot with the search engines directly, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Ask.com, and I don’t do SEO because of that; I don’t personally do SEO anymore because of the writing I do about it. I don’t want to have a bias towards knowing something that might be coming out in a few months, and saying, “Alright I have to do this for my clients because the search engines won’t give me information.” Just like Google doesn’t do SEO for anybody, I don’t think it would be fair for Danny or me to give SEO services to people. At the same time, there are people who are able to do both, I just think it’s important not to do both. I just write about it. I don’t run any SEO campaigns per-say, so because of that I don’t really lay out strategies in terms of how new people should get involved in SEO and what they should target, but like you said, it makes sense, local targeting is much easier than jumping into a campaign to get a mortgage website ranking number one for the keyword “mortgage” or whatever it might be.

MARK:
(Laughs)

BARRY:
So there are definitely good ways and good tools out there to find which keywords are more long tail. There are a lot of cool tools out there that give you some keyword phrases that might be something that you might want to target. If you are starting from scratch and you have no idea what you want to do, you might want to use Google Hot Trends; search for “Google hot trends” in Google and up will come a page from Google that will show you what people are searching on more actively now than they were yesterday. Maybe it’s some breaking news on some star, adopting a baby, or maybe it’s somebody winning something, or the election, or whatever it might be that is seasonal or news worthy might be the hot topic of the day. They show you a hundred of the top hot topics of the day and maybe you could try targeting those types of keywords, because some of those are pretty fresh and new and they might not be targeted by somebody else as of yet, and also they’re hot so it might bring you a lot of traffic.

MARK:
Tell us a little bit about Rusty Brick; what do you guys do for folks and how can people get in touch with you?

BARRY:
Primarily we do web software, meaning we don’t do standard web design. We can do web design, but we pretty much do stuff like web-based emergency room hospital software, or customs CRM software, or very, very advanced e-commerce software, or we can build social media sites like MySpace oriented sites and stuff like that. We build stuff that is extremely customized. In fact, we actually built the core back-end technology for popular SEO companies that sell text links called textlinkads.com. We built their core back-end structure which allows them to host the ads, deliver the ads to the site, manage obviously which publishers get paid, and stuff like that. So we really build from accounting systems to advanced e-commerce to social networking sites to very custom stuff like emergency room hospital software or practice management software, whatever it might be; we build custom web software. In addition we’ve also started building a lot of iPhone apps which is another thing that is just fun for us to do.

MARK:
How many employees do you have?

BARRY:
We’re at about fifteen right now.

MARK
: And how many projects a year do you do?

BARRY:
Typically between thirty and forty a month. It depends, some of its maintenance, some of it is brand new work.

MARK:
So you’re open for folks if they need that kind of stuff done to give you a call and you can help them out.

BARRY:
Yeah, as long as it’s custom stuff, we’re open to it.

MARK:
How do you divide your time between Search Engine Land and SE Roundtable, and RustyBrick?

BARRY:
I have a very strict schedule (laughs). At 5:30am or so, I get up and start doing research, that includes research for Search Engine Land and SE Roundtable. Between about 6-7:30am, depending on the details of exactly what time I get to our office, I actually start writing. Usually between 7 and 8am, I’ll do the writing at SE Roundtable, and the Search Engine Roundtable focus is again around search forum news and topics; so any topics you find from the search forums that people want to find quickly, we write about it. Then at Search Engine Land I write more about the news-oriented topics that I find at other blogs or other news sites, like Bloomberg or New York Times, and we cover the search industry from a news perspective or a tips perspective. Then I write between typically 8am and 9am on that. The rest of the day I pretty much focus on RustyBrick stuff and then anything coming in through the day in terms of SE Roundtable and Search Engine Roundtalbe, any other tips I get throughout the day or anything that comes up that is important I might have covered. We have a great staff over at Search Engine Land, so I can quickly say, “Oh this is breaking in the next hour, could Greg or could Matt or somebody else go ahead and cover it quickly?” and typically one of us are able to do it. We also have a nice round up of editors both at SE Roundtable and Search Engine Land that are able to cover things quickly. So I try to run myself on a very strict schedule. Do a lot of research very early in the morning before most people get up and then I start writing and everything is pretty much written and hopefully done and out the door published by 9am eastern time so that it’s all available for peoples reading while they get to work.

MARK:
That’s amazing. I didn’t realize that you were done by 9am every day. You’re an incredible writer and you write a lot. You must type at an amazing speed.

BARRY:
I type fast, yeah.

MARK:
(Laughs).

BARRY:
The question is, does it make sense? I assume so. I assume I don’t have so many grammar errors or so many typos where people still read it. I’ve been doing this for a really long time and my style is very quick and to the point. So instead of writing a whole long “How to do” thing where you don’t get to the point until the last paragraph, I tell you right away what the whole story is about in the first sentence. Then the rest is basically commentary on that first sentence. Sometimes I don’t need to do so much commentary because you can read more from the links I provide, but typically I try to provide the information right away in the first sentence or two, and it’s been working out well because people don’t have to waste time to read the whole thing if they don’t want to, they can just read the first sentence and if they want to know more they can read more, if not they can go on.

MARK:
Right. And everybody is very, very busy, I’m sure they appreciate that. Well do you have any other tips for the new folks coming in? It sounds like you also agree - it’s not too late and wherever they’re starting from is probably a fine spot.

BARRY:
Yeah it’s never too late to get into this industry. It’s always evolving. I personally write about ten things a day on search, so that means ten things are happening that I find to be important every single day, which means things are changing constantly; so if you come in and you catch that wave you can definitely get to the top of the industry pretty quickly. It’s really about making sure you understand who’s around. Obviously the History of SEO is going to be very important for people coming in new to learn about who has done what already in the past because if you come into the industry and you start acting like you’re mister big shot, people might take offense to that. As long as you know who you’re talking to and what they’ve done in the past, it’s good to have that information before you go and start tooting your own horn. It very important in any industry you go into, make sure you know the industry’s history. I definitely think what you’re doing over there is going to be a very valuable asset for anybody coming into the industry.

MARK:
Well thank you very much for that.

MARK:
Alright sir. Thank you so much for your time today.

BARRY:
Thank you. Have a good day.

MARK:
Alright bah-bye.

 
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