Eric Ward

eric-ward.jpg Mark Knowles: We are here with Eric Ward, president of EricWard.com and “the original” link builder in the world of the Internet. Eric also serves as Link Evangelist for search marketing intelligence firm AdGooroo.com, where he’s just co-developed Link Insight. Eric, thanks for joining us this morning.

Eric Ward: Thanks for inviting me. I'm thrilled to be here.

Mark: The History of SEO wants to ask you to back up in time and walk us through how you got into SEO and what motivated you.

Eric: Sure. Like a lot of guys, it was almost by accident because there was really no industry and nobody had any idea there would be one. When I started nearly 20 years ago, my professional background was in advertising, marketing and public relations. I was working for Whittle Communications. Most people don't know that name. They're more familiar with some of Whittle Communications products and services.
For example, if you've seen those huge posters in dentist's offices with a single sponsor like Crest toothpaste, that’s a Whittle Communications property. My title was, Marketing Director, which sounded very impressive. I flew all over the country, selling these advertising deals.

I was the guy putting on the suit and smiling—and pitching a nontraditional medium. This helped me when the Internet started to blossom because I liked nontraditional advertising and marketing approaches.
Time, Inc. bought Whittle Communications. Unfortunately, my division was shut down, and I was not invited to be a part of the new organization. I was 29 at the time and I thought, "Oh my God!" Here I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, and had been working with one of the hippest employers in the city, which meant I had to either relocate and find another company who would understand my skill-set or see if there was something else I could do with my life. I looked at graduate programs at University of Tennessee.

It was in graduate school, while taking a course in entrepreneurship in the information industry that my business break came. We received an assignment to create a fictitious information industry business. And I came up with the idea of a publicist for websites. Since no one in academia could tell me whether this was a good idea, I found the only Internet Company in town. It was US Internet, and I introduced myself and my business idea to their VP. He said that my idea not only made sense, but if I did it he’d hire me to promote their client websites. This was in early ‘94. The US Internet VP asked whether I had a name for my company. Since I didn’t, he said how about “NetPOST?”

I was so excited that I came up with an idea that had merit. US Internet was going to outsource web promotion services to me—and I was going to make a 100 or 200 bucks. What a great way to augment my income as I'm working to get my graduate degree. I didn’t even have a web site myself. All I had was an email address. I finally registered the domain netpost.com on December 7, 1994. My first web site was horrifying.
Also during this time, the university had hired me full time. But soon I was making more money from my part-time web promotion business than working at the university.

I was so excited about the web at this point and was subscribing to every online discussion list I could find where other online marketers were hanging out. Glenn Fleishman was the guy that ran the INET-Marketing discussion list at the time, and there were people from around the US participating all via email only. People on that list like John Audette, Jim Sterne, Larry Chase, and many others became extremely successful. So it was very much serendipity that I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I joined this discussion list and I'm lurking, reading everyone’s posts. And in the back of my mind, I wondered if somebody might hire my service on a national level, not just here in Knoxville. I made an announcement to the list, saying, "This is a service I offer here locally, but there's no reason I couldn't offer it to you guys, too. Let me know if any of you need some help promoting any websites that you're launching or launching for clients."

Then I got my first nibble, an email request for a phone meeting, from a fellow named Jeff Bezos. That evening he called, and told me his plans to launch an online bookstore. My wife was doing homework in the living room. I'm in the kitchen. We're 10 feet apart and I remember covering the receiver of the phone and saying, "This guy is thinking about launching an online bookstore." And I remember us both looking at each other like "That'll never work."

Mark: [laughs]

Eric: It was Amazon.com. I said "Sure. I'll launch your bookstore or I'll be your publicist or whatever." I did do their very first announcement and publicity—a link building campaign—for the premiere debut of Amazon.com Books.

I'm working solo and the business is coming in. I've got a website. I'm the real deal now. And I’m still working from my kitchen table. I remember emailing Jerry Yang who was still in school at Stanford and running Yahoo on the Akebono server there as a hobby with David Filo, and I asked him to create a category in Yahoo! for web promotion, because there wasn’t one yet. It is hard to believe there was a time when there was no web promotion industry, but there was. I’ve got the email reply from him up at my site.
Mark: Wow.

Eric: There were several lists that you hung on and participated in. Then, in ’96, I was invited to speak at a conference by Glenn Fleishman, who ran the discussion list I was on. Glenn was hired by Adobe to be the chairperson for a series of conferences: the Adobe Internet Development Conference Series.

He knew of me from his discussion list and sent me an email asking me if I had ever spoken publicly before and I said, "No." He said, "Would you be interested in flying out to San Francisco for the Adobe Internet Marketing Conference?"

I did my entire presentation on one big, long web page because that was the only way I knew to do it. But then I also thought," I can give people the URL." And say, "By the way, if you found this useful and you want to come back and see it again later, you can find it at netpost.com/adobeconference," without realizing its marketing impact.

People at that conference now had a URL to go to later. And if what I do is something they're interested in, the next logical step is they'll hire me.

At that conference, I was the highest rated speaker. So Glen invited me to speak at additional conferences. And other conferences produced by ThunderLizard, also invited me to speak. I had left graduate school at this point, two semesters short of my master's degree in Information Science because it makes no sense to me now. Now I'm at ten, twelve conferences a year all over the country, with still more conferences starting to emerge, as well.

Back then Danny Sullivan had a site at calafia.com, "The Webmaster's Guide to Search Engines." I totally loved his website because it helped my clients. I wasn't interested in anything that had to do with algorithms or ranking because I always viewed myself as a publicist link builder, public relations, just doing it online.
So I was continually steering my clients to Danny's site because he had a section devoted to every engine. And "Here's how you rank well for Lycos; here's how you rank well for AltaVista based on all of those first generation engines.

Mark: Right. And this is prior to "Search Engine Watch?"
Eric: Yes. "Search Engine Watch" doesn't even exist yet. It's located at http://www.calafia.com/webmasters.
Then Danny made the decision to go to a subscription model. Now, we know what Danny is today. But there was a time when Danny got his very first contribution of 20 bucks from a paid subscriber—and I was that subscriber.

Mark: That's an excellent little tidbit. I did not know this.

Eric: I was Danny Sullivan's first paid member.

Mark: How did you pay him?

Eric: I sent him a check via the mail. There was no PayPal. I did it because he was making my job easier saving me time. God, I didn’t want to figure out how Lycos works.

By speaking at the conferences, I'm getting more business and getting publicity in magazines. I’m involved in the launch of some really famous brands. Windows Media Player, which used to be called netshow, was one of my big early projects. Here’s an old original post. It’s hard for me to fathom that software now on every PC started as a project I helped with. Then, as universities started offering online marketing courses, I'm getting links from academia to my website, which is probably still why I rank as I do. I've got 15 year old links from universities. It's tough to beat those kind of links.

Mark: So links start to matter.

Eric: Exactly. I had no idea it was coming. I now have to make the decision whether to grow and hire people, or stay a two person operation (my wife had left nursing and was working with me too). And I decide not to because I'm earning a good living and getting to travel with her. I liked the link building process, was still fascinated by it. So I made a choice early on that I was just going to be a sole proprietor.

So Google comes on the scene. And believe it or not everyone thought they would never win.
The only place that made sense to me to pursue links was from a site that was on topic to begin with. So the approach that I used ended up having value to the Google algorithm. For the other engines, it was all on-site SEO, keyword stuffing, Meta tags, title tags, anything you could do to fool the them. It had nothing to do with links so there was no reason to launch a link building service.

Mark: Also, there was white hat SEOs back then too that were just utilizing those techniques to broadcast their message better.

Eric: Exactly. And because there weren't 4,000 other black hatters competing with you, you could be honest and if you were a vertical industry, you could succeed. If you sold industrial quality ball bearings, it's not like you had to worry about ranking top five in 1998.

Mark: Because people were preoccupied with the poker sites.

Eric: Yes. For many industries and sites, on site optimization was all you needed.

Mark: Right.

Eric: I also got the chance to launch Link Exchange. Tony Hsieh hired me to launch the very first banner exchange program. The Internet Link Exchange.

Mark: You're this client guy behind a lot of things.

Eric: Someone at The Wall Street Journal Online said I was “The Svengali behind the scenes of some of the web's most famous launches.” I like being behind the scenes. I didn't mind, because ultimately, I knew it wasn't me that was doing it. The content was what succeeded. I've always believed that.

Today when people ask, "How many links can you get us? "I say, "I can't get you any. Your content will either inspire others to link to it, or they won't. I can help speed that process, but ultimately, it doesn't matter. If you don't have the goods, you're not going to get the links."

So link exchange was bought by bCentral. Tony was now consulting with Microsoft bCentral as part of that changeover. He recommended to Microsoft that they should buy NetPOST. In '99, I get an offer for roughly $1.3 million, a combination of cash and stock. One-third cash, two-thirds stock for me to sell the NetPOST brand and become part of bCentral. It would require moving to Redmond and building a staff.

I turned the deal down, but they contracted me to write a manual that bCentral sold to everybody that built a website through bCentral. It was a web promotion guide. Then Tony ended up launching Venture Frog (vfrogs), and Zappos.com, the shoe site.

In the past five or six years, I've continued to do link building for select clients, as well as advise, teach, and train on the methods that I believe in.

Even to this day, I'd say the only search phrase that matters to me is "link building expert,” "link building strategist,” "link building strategies.” I do rank first in all four engines, so my methods work. It is 100% white hat. It is merit driven—links earned based on content and I basically still view myself as a content publicist, not a link builder.

It happens that the method I use is a method that algorithms trust because I'm not chasing butterflies. I'm matching content to the logical place it should have its links.

Sometimes I wish I had a little more business sense and didn't always view growth as bad. Just because you grow, doesn't mean you have to lose quality. That was always my greatest fear.

Mark: Right, right.

Eric: So that’s my story.

Mark: It was very good and there's a whole lot of depth to your history. Any final thoughts?

Eric: I’ve just completed the launch of a very cool link building quality control tool called Link Insight. I developed it with Rich Stokes and AdGooroo.com, where I’m currently working as the Link Evangelist. But even as I continue to help others build the right kind of links, I am amazed at how people overlook the power of their own sites to help improve the rank of pages. Once you have established yourself as credible and trustworthy via external links pointing to your site, Google trusts you. And if Google trusts you, they will very likely trust what you say about yourself and what you link to.

Mark: What a great point to close our discussion with. Thanks.