MARK: We are sitting here with Bill Hunt, the CEO of Global Strategies International, at SES San Jose 2008. Thanks for coming and talking to us about the history of SEO, and boy we’d just love to hear about your beginnings. I know personally you’ve had quite an early start in this world and one would consider you a pioneer in a number of areas of SEO. What were you doing before SEO?
BILL: Before SEO I actually had a different company called QuakeGear, in Los Angeles. We were selling earthquake or disaster preparedness kits and doing disaster preparedness. The very first earthquake I had ever experienced was in Japan. I had lived in Japan, my wife was Japanese, and I was trying to crack Japan. Essentially I went there and did all the things, but the distribution system, especially at that time was so archaic you weren’t going to get in. So I came back and I went into this online forum, back in the old days where there was no browser, there was nothing; it was called the GE Network, or the Genie Network, and it was basically where a lot of professionals went. It was a pre-AOL forum type environment. I went in and sort of wrote this crazy rant about how frustrated I was with Japan and how it was insane, and this guy from Japan basically saw this and asked for a catalog. That was sort of my first exposure to this thing “the internet,” and from there we started using that to reach out to people. Along those lines then came the browser. Once we had the browser we had a little website. This is when you bought space on Xmission, you had the little tilde and quakier, and it was in English and Japanese, and we started wondering, “How do we promote this? How do we tell everybody that this site exists?” So we started finding little directories and little black or grey background repositories, and then I came across this little site called Yahoo, I forget exactly when in time, and we sent the request in. We got listed, and when people called we’d ask, “Where did you find us?” and they said, “Oh I found you on this listing called Yahoo.” Then it was interesting, Cobe earthquake hit and a lot of Japanese came to our site or called us because they found us online. Newspapers especially found us online because they were the ones using the internet at that time. We did a considerable amount of business with Japan which got written about in the LA Times, which lead to an Ink Magazine article, the irony was that from that we thought sales of our earthquake kits would go up, but everybody wanted to know how we cracked that Japanese market. We had this little site and people found it, and they found us on these links, and the next thing you know we were bombarded by people who wanted us to help them use the internet to reach Japan. So basically the Japanese then came in and did private deals with all of our suppliers, so we got tired of the earthquake kit stuff and then started figuring out, “How do we help people use the Internet to reach an overseas market?” That was actually my thesis for an MBA, “Using the Internet to Reach Overseas Markets.” That was the catalyst of what became Global Strategies the first time. Then from there we started selling to people. Now when I look back I hate to use the word “scam” because you could submit for free to all of the directories, but people just didn’t know how. Rather than teach them how, we would do it for them. I remember sending these requests to this guy named Jerry Yang, who ran this little directory sight called Yahoo. So that’s sort of how we got our start. What we would do for a very interesting way to generate business is we would go to Yahoo!, pick a topic, print off maybe fifty copies of the Yahoo! results page, and then go into the Thomas register, which had all the businesses that sold batteries or industrial products, and we’d simply put their email address into a letter, attach the Yahoo! page to it, and send them a letter and say, “You’re not here, and for 100 dollars we will add you to this wonderful directory.” So that is how we got sort of branched out in directories. We were localizing websites and as part of that we would do our submission. Then the engines started coming around, AltaVista, and we would obviously submit to AltaVista, and then we started noticing that we would rank number one today, tomorrow we’d be number three, and then we went in and started seeing that you could manipulate those rankings, so we were doing that for people. People that we would build websites for; we were trying to make them search friendly at the time. So this is one of the things that we want to tell people getting into this business is that the cycles are very interesting; that back then you would never think about making it search friendly because there was no connection necessarily between a search engine and a website. Today you get paid a lot of money, and ironically one of the biggest services we have at Global Strategies is helping large development companies integrate search into the web content production cycle. So one of the key services that we do for our clients is help them make the web development process easier and more search friendly by adding those search practices. So backing up, we started seeing this phenomenon so we started manipulating the sites basically watching this every couple days, going in a tweaking meta tags and everything like that. Then I forget exactly the date but a friend of mine told me that he had heard about this guy from Orange County that sort of wrote about this phenomenon, and then I was one of the board members of the web guild, and we invited this guy to come talk to us and it was actually Danny Sullivan who pre-search day was actually writing for, I believe, The Orange County Register, and we brought him in to talk about his phenomenon, and in there were people like Greg Boser, and a few of these other guys who had been doing this for quite a while. So we just said, “Wow,” we realized that we’ve been doing this, they’ve been doing it, and now I knew who I was competing against on some of these. That was sort of the catalyst. Then we sort of evolved and grew and grew and grew. We started doing more and more large sites. We started submitting obviously to Japan; Yahoo Japan was one of the first markets that Yahoo! went to. A lot of the engines started cropping up. Japan had an NTT. That was the evolution that Global Strategies grew. We did a lot of localization, a lot of web build, just a lot of SEO at that time. This was pre-paid search. Then the next evolution was when we were really struggling because if you can imagine today how hard it is to sell an SEO, it’s a little easier to sell in website design, but again we were ahead of the time telling about localized design, let alone optimizing localized design. So people thought we were crazy; it was a very tough deal. We had about four hundred people in a database that could localize stuff for us and do local market promotions around the world. We were trying to pitch a very large client and the most interesting test I ever experienced for testing your ability was for fourteen or fifteen countries it was the absolute worst time to do a phone call in as many markets as possible. Like in the US it was like at 2am, and in other markets it was equally… and what they were trying to do was test whether or not these were sub-contractors, or out source, or my employees. The idea was, if they were my employees or if I had some authoritative control over these people, I could make them be on the call at this ungodly hour around the world. So the fact that I couldn’t, that I had people that were outsourcing too and things like that, they’re like, “I’m not doing a call at 9:30 at night or 4:00 in the morning from China or wherever, so basically we lost the deal because they said, “Clearly you don’t control these people.” That’s when I started looking to see how we could take this Global, how we could build this. About that time there was a guy named John Audette who was running a company called Multi-Media Marketing Group.
MARK: How did you guys meet?
BILL: John and I met at a marketing conference. We had met a couple times before that and John had sent me a note saying that he was in the process of selling part of the company to a big British company and was trying to grow, and I think at the time there was probably five or six employees. They were doing a fair bit. They were starting to dabble. They had a guy there named Marshall Simmonds who was sort of their search guy and at this point in time I think Danny had come in and spent some time with them. Marshall was writing I-Search; I had known Marshall through that. I knew John through I-Sales. So we started talking and realized that for me to take my company with what I wanted to do at the next level, I needed a larger structure and with the company that was buying MMG, they had a foot print around the world; they were Tempus Group which had offices all over the place. For me that was the catalyst. John and I worked out a deal. There were parts of my business, I had a small hosting element and I had a small web development element, so I basically sold those pieces off and then John and I structured a really nice deal for me to come to Bend, Oregon. So I came to Bend, Oregon with the role of the “senior strategist/sales/wow guy/ whatever” and then working with the team with Marshall, Derrick Wheeler… you know, Bend had become sort of the “mecca” of search if you will. What we started to do is we started really looking at search the right way. We started to say, “How can we align this with other forms of marketing. How can we expand it?” And using Marshall’s voice and foot print we were able to gain a pretty considerable amount of awareness. Derrick Wheeler spun off a piece that John had started dabbling with called the MMG Top 100. This was link building before link building was cool. And if you really look back, it’s so ironic, one of the things that you mentioned was “How are things changing, and how are things staying the same?” I think when I look back, “My gosh, I really wish I would have had Derricks list today.” That ended up becoming Andre who was running that, but the idea was that at the time search engines were good but people were stumbling on different sites by the linkages. So if I am on a website about bass fishing and there is a link over to the uber side about bass fishing, then I’m going to hop, to hop, to hop. If I sell bass fishing lures, then I should be on the bass fishing uber website. Derrick had great foresight, we had the top one hundred and John had written this really brilliant copy; after the top first ten, “It’s getting tedious now isn’t it,” or “How you hanging in there?” The next ten or twenty was some other snippy little comment. By the time people got to thirty or forty, the comments were saying things like, “Wouldn’t you rather have somebody else do this for you?” So we started selling this top 100 as a submission list. And like I said Derrick and those guys have really dialed it in where we were doing submissions to the top one hundred sites that we thought were generic that you should be listed in; Yahoo! directories, The Best of The Web, and all of these directory type sites. Again it was free. We weren’t doing it for link forming or spamming. It made sense from a business standpoint. It was just like in the old days, posting in a forum, if people are talking about surfing and you sell surf boards, well posting in a forum telling people you had surfboards wasn’t a problem. So that was another thing that we were doing. The idea of all of this was simply to bring traffic back to the client’s website. What really sprung this forward from making this a proper business was an Intel project that started out sort of as a bet; we think it was a bet. Two guys each committed thirty thousand dollars. One to this tiny, we called it “before the banner work,” and the other two were big uber digital agency who gave us each thirty grand and the objective was to take this box of computer parts and get it in the hands of educators. This was part of his promotion for Intel and education. It had all of these computer parts and basically it had a nice little box, you take the cover off and a teacher could talk about computers. They had a sample hard disk, or chips and things, and we used this Gorilla Warfare basically. We went out to forums, we found these directories, we found places that were related to teachers and we started posting this, “Get your free Intel and Education, learning about the computer guide,” and when it was all said and done, I think our acquisition cost was like 22 cents. They had a backorder on these kits, and the other guys had spent like thirty grand and was like a 42 dollar average cost per action. It was outrageous. So they showed this in a meeting, and within about five months we had probably fourteen brand divisions in Intel. That was the catalyst for what we call “proper search” where we were really focusing on how to get them indexed, how do we change meta tags, change descriptions, maybe a title tag, it was all very simple then. But we were growing it up. Then we started evolving models. We had another client art.com, where we sat in a room and they were spending tons of money on banners. We couldn’t spend it fast enough during the .com boom, but in our hearts we knew that organic search especially was the righteous thing. Now, we could go to Yahoo! and AOL and buy words. You can go and buy “art” or you can buy “Picasso” or all the art words at AOL or you could do it at Yahoo and it was serve up banners. So that was the first keyword targeting and then we really believed in organic search as well. So we actually did a model that said, “If you spend $100,000 on organic search, we could drive the equivalent of $3,000,000 in banners.” We had the first set of really complex models to convince marketers to dabble in the black arts as they always sort of viewed it; we were doing some voodoo stuff to their website.
MARK: What year was this?
BILL: This had to be ’97 or ’98.
MARK: And when did you meet John?
BILL: ’98 because I became part of MMG in 1997. So late ’97 early ’98, and then about six months after I joined is when we got the Intel project and then art.com was actually their biggest account at that time. So it was very interesting times. Then what was happening was sort of the de-evolution, so Marshall ended up going to About.com, and then Detlev basically stepped up into his place, became the moderator of I-Search, and then we started evolving. Derrick was growing out the link building in a very interesting way. He started gathering sites in verticals. So we had our insurance, the top 100 of insurance; the top one hundred of business, or small business, or health, and so we were selling that to people. We would go out and get people to buy these hundred links. There was no promise of getting them, we would just go in and manually submit them. In some cases we had evolved a submission tool, but everything was done high-quality. Screen shots of everything back to the client. Then we started integrating search into everything we did. Over time MMG got acquired by Outrider and I became the US CEO of Outrider. And again, really focusing on a couple key things: 1.) organic search, all of this before the banner under the radar stuff 2.) Link building 3.) Forum monitoring. We were one of the top five or six in terms of banner buying. We were a full service digital agency.
MARK: And you were also focusing on not just Yahoo, but MSN, and Google…
BILL: Absolutely, and Overture came in. Outrider under the team there, it was sort of myself and Detlev, placed the first actual add on GoTo, even before it was Overture. So I think our check got in first, is why we were first. We did, we were the first ones that saw this. That you could buy it and it was a way to sort of by-pass some of the hassles we had of trying to rank organically. So MMG was acquired by Outrider; we had a few shifting of people.
MARK: Were you still in Bend at that time?
BILL: I was still in Bend. I was in Bend for about two years, so we moved from LA to Bend. And then in early 2000, we were acquired by our parent, Tempus Group was acquired by WPP. We were assigned in the younging rubicam vertical (014.MP3 – 4:56), assigned specifically to the digital edge. The interesting thing there was that they didn’t quite know what to do with us. They were doing all of the banner buys, so we got rid of that. We ended up basically whacking the entire team in Bend, because they didn’t quite know how to deal with it. So I was moved to New York with a couple other folks, and essentially that core team of these search people stayed in Bend. Derrick Wheeler stayed in Bend, Detlev stayed in Bend, and a bunch of other folks. So that is why there is still a very large concentration of search experts there in Bend. Jeremy Sanchez is there who now works for me. Andre who worked for Derrick and ultimately me with Outrider and MMG, he was working for me at GSI and just sort of went out on his own. So that’s why there is so much talent there, because then a couple of our clients that we had actually moved there; they left their company and again, that’s why I think Bend is such a hub for search talent. It’s a great place to live, you can get a lot of great people because there is a cross-section of people very intelligent, well educated, and they all basically come to Bend for the life-style and they are looking for a good job that is intellectually challenging. So 2000 happened. I left about nine months after. I didn’t quite fit with the agenda of the new owners. It was a mutual decision; I wasn’t happy. I was sort of a pain in the ass, and going into meetings trying to sell our stuff, because I still represented what Outrider was for, which in many cases like it does today conflicts with other forms of media. So if they are trying to sell a million dollars of banners, and I’m trying to sell a million dollars in paid search, one of us has to give.
MARK: Maybe the customer is only going to spend a million dollars?
BILL: Absolutely, and then you start cannibalizing things, and you go in a meeting and you happened to be a little more persuasive the client says, “Great, give them a hundred grand out of this for organic, and give them a million for this.” Then things started to get squirrely and I wasn’t particularly happy, so I left. At that time I actually made the conscious decision after being one of these pioneers in this, I was finding that it was becoming very difficult after the .com boom, to sell in search and many of these very effective forms of digital marketing. So I made a conscious decision that I was done with search. I didn’t want to do it anymore, “I’m done. I’m done.”
MARK: When was that?
BILL: This was in October of 2000. I put a stake in the sand, I was done. What is nice when you leave on mutual terms, you get a nice little severance package. I cashed in the shares that I got from the different points of acquisition. So I didn’t necessarily need to work. But what was interesting, really the only SES West Coast I’ve ever missed was in the spring of 2001. Danny had me speaking, but I took my family to Australia for a holiday. So the idea was that I would come back and speak at SES, and why was I going to speak when I didn’t want to do search anymore? So, I didn’t. I came back home and this guy tracked me down from WebMD. He said, “We really want to work with you,” and I said, “Ah, I don’t do search anymore.” And he said, “Please we really want to work with you, we hear you have some great thinking.” So I sent them this proposal that was somewhat ridiculous in price assuming they would never pay. Unfortunately they paid, and I came in and I did the work. This was sort of that epiphany of why we were having so much trouble at Outrider selling into big clients because we didn’t understand how companies worked. We knew how to sell, we knew how to do search, we knew how to do digital marketing, but we didn’t understand corporate dynamics. Sitting there, during my epiphany day, with the IT team at WebMD, and looking at the white board, and seeing fifty plus items listed on the white board, and a little faint dotted line at like number 11. They were trying to explain to me, “All the stuff you are going to tell us to do is going to be somewhere in the 35 to 50 range, and see that faint little line there? Anything below that line does not get done; will not get done; cannot get done. It’s just there to make management happy.” That was that epiphany, “No wonder clients never did what we told them to do,” and we had to figure out, “How do we weigh fixing this stuff and making changes to the websites against all the other things that were going to bring wonders and stuff that they needed to do on the web. So at that point, sitting there with these guys and trying to work with them to understand how things moved up and down that list, really got me thinking that we have to instead of approaching this with sending a client a bunch of stuff to change on their website, it’s all about change management. “How do we integrate this into the ten projects that are on the board that are going to get done? Where can I insert search-related activities, to move the needle in any way?” That’s when we started dissecting, well “we” was “I” started dissecting the work flow, the content creation work flow, how the websites were built, what the current IT priority list was and how to get into that. About three months later, I got a call from Mike Marran at IBM; when I was at Outrider I was also the primary strategist on the global IBM search project, I think my “non-disclosures” has probably expired by now, so the company that was doing it wasn’t doing very well so they brought me in to try to realign that. That’s what I did. I worked with the current agency and them to basically redo it, and I had this new vision of how things should be done. So we started applying that. We started working with the IT team. I was what they later called an Inbeded Strategist, helping them understand search but understanding the IBM content work flow. As we started making these changes, we noticed little things. The first was that there was only about 10,000 pages in the index? Well, Why? Well they had a robots text file on three quarters of the site because they didn’t want all the search crawler traffic being in their servers. So we actually set up a meeting with Google and Yahoo and MSN and they put some sort of load balancing thing on the servers and at 3am on a Saturday they allowed the spiders to crawl the site, and it didn’t even move the needle in any way. So at that point they said, “Alright, let’s take the robots text down.” Within four or five weeks we had a million pages in Google. Almost overnight, traffic went from a fraction of 1% to 10% of the total traffic to the website from search. We started making more of these operational changes. Again this is just me doing it myself. The WebMD project I brought in Andy Whetherwax, who is a brilliant content guy, great presenter, he was what we called at GSI “the pony tail.” Andy would come in, he had the pony tail, he could talk with the developers, he was believable, and he wasn’t a “suit.” So Andy and I were working on some of these projects and I got the strangest call. I had just spoke at SES London, and this guy called and said, “Hi, I’m calling from Yahoo!, I would like you to come in and help with SEO.” I’m like, “Yeah, ok, sure. Let’s assume you are Yahoo and you are the engine, what would I possibly do for you?” So I thought it was a joke call; turns out it was real. They wanted us to basically come in and do what we did at IBM for them so that they could get traffic from, of all places, Google or MSN because they have all these great verticals, so what better way to get it from another engine for people who were doing it. So the objective was to rank well. Unfortunately I couldn’t do one more large project and we wanted somebody on the West coast, so I called up Jeremy Sanchez, who as I said used to work for me at Outrider, and I said, “Jeremy how would you like to work on a Yahoo! project?” I mainly called Jeremy for two reasons: One, he was one person who understood this process, two, he was helping integrate Position Technologies Feed Tool into Yahoo!. So he knew all the people at Yahoo!. He knew a lot of the engineers. He knew what they were doing.
MARK: So Position Tech, he was with Andy?BILL: No Andy was by himself. Jeremy was with Jim Staab at Position Technologies, they do the paid inclusion. Detlev was working there as well. Detlev was the Chief Engineer who was building Position Tech’s scoring tools. So Jeremy said, “Well, I’ve got to think about it, I’ve got a good thing here and you want me to come on the risk of nothing, that I may not even have a job,” So we went and met with them, and long story short basically the champion ended up leaving so they realized that it would be better to build this themselves. About that time, Jeremy had met some folks from P&G and started talking to them. We won a couple projects there. So the rest is sort of history. The three of us then brought the collective wisdom of how we should approach this as a proper way with this idea that people need to do a lot of this from the inside out. So our tag line is “Search from the Inside Out” which is basically leveraging the internal structure for the overall success. That has been the catalyst of GSI. So we formed officially with the three of us I think it was in the end of 2000, so I formed GSI in March of 2001, I had to have some legal entity to work with WebMD. So I created it and then the end of that year we had been moving along so we formed with the three of us. To me probably one of the happiest days in terms of the company was standing in front of the convention center in London at SES London and having someone walk by and say, “Look it’s the dream team of search.” that made us feel really good. Then over the next five or six years we hired back a number of the former Outriders, so Sarah Anderson who has since gone out on her own a couple months ago, she was running Europe. A couple other people that are well known in the industry we’ve brought in to run different parts of the world. We’ve since grown. In February we were acquired by Ogilvy. It’s interesting; it’s another WPP company. They bought 70% of us. It’s been really good because it’s allowed us to sort of fulfill my original dream of that global domination around search. We have offices all over the world. We have people all over the world. Most of our projects, I would say eight out of ten, are five or more country type projects. That has allowed for me personally to realize that dream of truly using the Internet and using search to help companies reach overseas markets. So that is sort of my story and there is some up-hills and down-hills and it all worked, but the thing that kept coming back in for me personally, was never losing the idea that this could be done you just have to find the right people. We have a very simple rule at GSI when we take on a client, and clients love it when you tell them this during a pitch, is “Three simple rules: one, it’s got to be intellectually stimulating, two, financially rewarding, and three, it has to be fun.” So if the client is a total ass and it’s going to be painful working with them, we’ll turn them down. Ironically, when Ogilvy was doing the dudiligence to make sure these clients weren’t going to fire us after we got bought, two of the clients actually asked them, “Are they going to have the same three rules?” It was very interesting because they’d never heard those rules, but the clients liked that so much that they had to challenge us. So for anyone wanting to do this, I would say, “Do it.” I think search, and we were talking to a couple women last night and what was very interesting for me was how they were saying that search has been one of the most empowering things they think for women, because there really is no barrier. If you become good at search, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female. There is inherent challenges of being a woman, obviously, the whole male-dominated society type thing, but when you look around some of the top search experts out there are actually women. I think that for anyone, no matter what you are doing, it’s like anything take the effort, take the SEMPO course, go through Bruce Clay’s ToolSet™, any of these things to gain some knowledge in a structured format. Obviously read my book, the second edition is coming out in a couple months in September.
MARK: Maybe we can get a link on this site.
BILL: That would be great. The idea is that any of these tools, you know Sherri Thurow has a great book…
MARK: Jill Whalen’s.
BILL: Jill Whalen has one. There is a lot of really good information out there. Some really good blogs, but be careful with blogs because you don’t know if the person really knows, but read things. Read some of the good stuff. I think that search is the one thing where you can be a brilliant single person practitioner making a fortune off of optimizing affiliate sites. You can be an inbeded strategist. I think there are a thousand open jobs on Monster.com right now for people with search experience. I’ve seen people last year at the SES San Jose; I met a woman early in the night who said that she had just been given an offer of $75,000 that day by a company. Somewhere in there we had offered her a job, and by the end of the night I came back and said, “So how is it looking? Have you thought it over?” and she said, “Well actually, this other company has offered me $140,000.” So over the course of one night, this woman went from $75,000 to $140,000, now granted she’s a phenomenal SEO expert and deserves every penny of it, but started out underselling herself, willing to settle for $75k and then realized her true market place value. I don’t know any other industry where you can really do that. I think that you should be true to yourself, be a student of your craft, really try to understand what it is you do, why you do it. The other big thing that I do is I take a lot of passion in realizing and understanding that we’re hired by clients to make them better. We have an economic value to them. So they hire us to be there because we have the time, we have the experience, or we have the tools, or whatever; they are hiring us with the expectation that whatever they are going to pay us, they are going to get 2x, 5x, 10x, return off of that. And if you can understand that value and deliver that to clients, you’ll never be short of work because the referrals from that will be exponential. We never advertise. We’ve exhibited once at any search conference and that’s because the VC we were thinking of taking money from told us to do it. We get more leads and more opportunities by blogging or writing, meeting people and referrals. I think that anyone who is starting out should get out there whether you are just a high school kid that just has passion for this, and write about it. That is the freest form of marketing you can possibly get today, is writing about it and writing intelligently about it; because people will find it, and people will look for it. I met a guy that is an expert in flash and he truly is an expert in flash because I found his blog, and I found how he was writing about how to do it, and it’s a sole practitioner helping web design companies crack the flash problem. I found him simply by searching for “optimizing flash pages,” and there his site was. He was very insightful. Really explore your opportunities. Try to evaluate; do you want to work for someone? Do you want to be independent? The other thing is keep an open mind. A lot of people are jumping on social media, but the essence of social media that I think people miss is that every bit of social media ends up in a search engine. Now search engine optimization where we’re optimizing HTML pages, but it’s really this idea now that it’s any kind of digital content optimization. So whether it is a video in YouTube, or a press release, or anything like that, it’s opening up vast opportunities for people who look holistically. So don’t narrow your focus to any one thing, and again be a student of your craft, and stick with it. I think we are going to see a lot of opportunity with search and search related tasks going forward.
MARK: That was excellent. Boy, you just encapsulated twelve or thirteen, maybe fourteen years worth of stuff in about 30 minutes. That’s great. We thank you so much for your time, and I think a follow-up is probably going to be in order, but I think we are going to see each other at a future conference.
MARK: And again thank you very much.
BILL: Great, thanks.