MARK: We are sitting here with Greg Boser at the Edge Water talking about SEO and search, and we are trying to rewind back. It was a long time ago when Greg got started but we are trying to go back to what got him into search and how his inspiration started.
GREG: It started for me… I worked for a company in southern California that did fire protection equipment for people that live in fire prone areas like Malibu; remember the fire of ’95 in Malibu where all the big houses burnt. I was down there and I was watching CBS News and they were showing an aerial shot of these three guys with flames coming up over the hill and they were foaming down this house, and then they ran inside. It turns out that these guys were from Boulder Colorado and they had a company where they sold this protective foam equipment and they would chase fires to market their product. So they get on the news, they get some press time, and they actually had to go inside the house and the fire burned over them and they all survived. And I went, “Wow that was kind of cool.” So I called those guys up and said, “Hey I want to work for you.” So I was working as a sales rep for the southern California area and I was putting together sales teams of people to go out and market and sell these. We were selling to people like Jack Nicholson and Cher, and a lot of those homes you would go in and it was powered by charge nitrogen. There were no movable parts. It was a pretty innovative thing. So I got into doing that and that led to going into AOL and CompuServe, back in those days.
MARK: What year was that?
GREG: This was probably late ’95 early ’96. Using those sites, kind of spamming their message groups and stuff, because there were firefighters that hung out there, so we would recruit retired or semi-retired fire fighters to work as commission sales people because they were familiar with the product. So that was kind of my first foray into internet marketing. This product was really expensive so I decided that what I wanted to do instead of working for them directly was to become a dealer and carry other products. So, I thought, “Hey I’ll build a website.” So I got a copy from FrontPage 1.0. I think it was actually even before Microsoft bought it, you know, no programming skills what-so-ever. I started a company called Wild Fire Defense Systems and built a website, bought email spam lists, and did a bunch of stupid stuff - and nobody came. I was like, “Where’s all my traffic?” because of course it was totally boot strapped and I was like, “Wow, I need to make money,” so I started surfing around and I ended up finding this white paper that was written by this Orange County Register reporter, named Danny Sullivan, called Web Master’s Guide to Search Engines. It was hosted on his personal site, and it was this document explaining about meta tags, and how it all worked, and I was just intrigued. I started applying that stuff and then the website started getting some traffic and I got to the point where I was brokering deals from other parts of the country, like somebody from Afghanistan found the website and I hooked up sales with that company. I was just kind of hooked from that point on; it was like, “Wow, this is kind of cool.” Installing the systems was quite a bit of manual labor, because you actually go to the house and it was hard work. At some point I went, “This internet thing is kind of cool and can maybe be a business some day.” I was one of Danny’s first subscribers. You used to have to fax him a paper fax of your credit card number because there was no online billing or anything like that.
MARK: (Laughs) So you could stay a member?
GREG: Yeah, and then that site turned into SearchEngineWatch. So I basically borrowed money from my dad, locked myself in a room for six months, and just tried to learn whatever I could learn. There were no classes; it was nothing like it is today. Then I thought, “This Danny guy is probably going to be a big player on the space.” I just thought the search thing could be an industry someday and I convinced my wife; she didn’t really believe it. So I used to stalk Danny, back then it was all email discussion lists, and I would find out where he was hanging out, and I would join those lists and write posts. Back then, the whole “Fake it till you make it” thing was this handful of people. I-Search was really the main place, and "Link Exchange Digest," all of the Audette stuff. So those guys were in those email lists, and we subscribed and that’s where I met Marshall Simmonds; he was the very first moderator of I-Search. It only came out once or twice a week, so you would have all week. You didn’t really have any clients so everyone would sit around and write these brilliant posts and submit them, and people would read them and go, “Wow.” And that’s how I kind of got on the radar and how I met Danny, and it just grew from there. It was weird, I used to beg and borrow, and I would literally pay people to let me work on their site, instead of the other way around… doing SEO for my daughters karate instructor.
MARK: You paid them?
GREG: Almost, I mean I’d do it for free. Then when you would go out and pitch a client, and back then clients didn’t even know what search marketing was, so it wasn’t even about pitching and competing against other people like it is now where everyone knows they need it. Then it was about, “Well, let me first convince you why you need it.” Pretty difficult time, but they were good years. I met a lot of people that are still friends to this day. The big joke was it was like there was 20 of us, and we didn’t even have a name for the business, the whole “SEO” thing didn’t even really exist. So we became a pretty close group, hanging out. Then when MMG got acquired everyone went their own way. Detlev took over I-Search, and then he left and moved on and Marshall went to About…
MARK: … and About got acquired…
GREG: Yep, he’s been through a couple acquisitions. It was all about Infoseek and stuffing meta tags. It was a weird time because back in those days, this is pre-bubble explosion, Google hadn’t even started yet. There was Infoseek, Excite, Yahoo!’s directory, and AltaVista; AltaVista back when it was hosted on the digital… you know, it was crazy. It was all about “on the page” so we just spend hours reverse engineering, and back in those days there was a lot of revenue in page views. So a lot of the classic stuff, stories you hear about spam, were about just getting eyeballs. There was no real conversion involved in it, so if you had banner ads, in the hay day $80 CPM $120 CPM for banner ads, it was crazy. That’s really kind of where spamming was born in a sense, that people would stuff words in their meta tags that really had nothing to do with the page, so the results were wacked and not very relevant, and people didn’t care because if the page loaded the banner displayed and they got their eyeballs. Infoseek was great because you could submit your content and it would show up in five minutes. So you would submit, refresh, “Oh I went down to seven, that didn’t work,” change the page, submit… it was insane… pots and pots of coffee all night long. And you could actually see your competitors and everybody would swipe everybody’s code because it was all based on what’s on the page, so people would steal your HTML and use it in theirs, and copy your meta tags, and that’s kind of where the cloaking thing started. Cloaking was initially a defensive mechanism so people couldn’t see what you were doing. Once you found that secret sauce, you didn’t want your competitors to have it so you would serve the page different.
GREG: Cloaking actually started with Microsoft and Netscape. When guys at Netscape were working on their browser they would set up and track all the Redmond IPs and they would serve different content to people at Microsoft who were on their site looking to see what they were doing; a lot of fun in those days.
MARK: Now were you redirecting IP's or were you just sniffing out the agent?
GREG: It was basically IP based. Back then there weren’t user agent switchers and stuff, so you could do a lot more with the user agent stuff, it was a lot harder, and now with Firefox and all of the plug-ins and stuff, it’s pretty amazing.
MARK: I’m trying to remember how we figured out the IP addresses, but I don’t remember. I remember we ended up getting a subscription to someone who…
GREG: Uh huh. I still do that. I mean, I wouldn’t cloak if I had to track all the IPs myself. But I have a good friend who has been doing it since the beginning, he has a huge network.
MARK: Are his initials JH?
GREG: Uh huh, exactly. You know John Denver; Opie Cunningham, yeah, great guy.
MARK: Great guy.
GREG: Stand up guy. But yeah, it’s funny because when I first started I was much more of the squeaky clean “Don’t cheat” thing, and John would be the guy on these lists defending cloaking and stuff and I’ll never forget the first time I met him I was like, “Aren’t you supposed to have horns coming out?” He was so not… if you’ve ever met the guy you would never think in a million years…
MARK: Because they make him out to be kind of a "devil".
GREG: Yeah, and he really is just the sweetest guy I know, he’s a great guy. So he kind of converted me. I bought his software and this was around ’99 – 2000, back then Google was still up and coming and they really struggled with finding big brand sites that were built poorly. So now-a-days no matter how bad the site is, if you type in “Starbucks” or whatever, they show up, but it wasn’t always like that. A lot of that early SEO stuff was really about fixing problems or lack of good algorithms of the search engines. The corporate cloaking thing just took off and I went off in that direction for probably three solid years. I did a ton of that.
MARK: So ’95 – ’96, are you into cloaking yet? ’97 –’98?
GREG: Yeah, I started dabbling in ’98 – ’99, and by 2000 it was mainstream. What happened was, in May of 2000 there was a company called Green Flash, a guy named Dr. Peck who ran it, and it was the big cloaking company. He actually was the first speaker on cloaking at Danny’s very first session. I found him stealing content. What he was doing was, he did work for Allstate and State Farm and all of these big companies and they had a system that would just go out to AltaVista every night and query their words, and it would grab the top 20 pages and copy them and put them on their server and then cloak those pages back; there was no duplicate content protection right, so if you had a good ranking page, and there was no authority on any of that kind of stuff going on, so they had this big huge machine going on and they were stealing content. Things like searching for “Hot Wheels” and they were taking pages of these Hot Wheel enthusiasts that buy and trade online and cloaking that page and re-directing the traffic to like, eToys. It was kind of a big scandal. We stumbled on it because of Babelfish, you know AltaVista’s translation; they had a bug in their thing, and they were giving up their cloak content to the translator, so I went through and documented it all. Back then the FTC was going after people for this big scandal with another guy that was cloaking stuff so they had actually investigated cloaking. So my client wanted to sue him and I said, “No this will be better,” we put together a press release, I filed a complaint with the FTC, and then we launched the press release announcing the complaint and naming the people and the clients and everything, and it caused this huge s*** storm.
GREG: Green Flash was put out of business.
MARK: As a result...?
GREG: Yeah, and it was just really ugly, and there were depositions and all kinds of bizarre stuff. The clients had no idea that that’s how they were getting the traffic, they were just paying for a service and it was never disclosed to them and that was my first experience with that whole concept and how that’s a bad thing for our industry. I don’t get hung up on the tactics but being up front and disclosing to your client is critical to me, and I think any SEO that does that kind of work and doesn’t tell the client, or tell the client they’re going to do one thing and then do another, it’s just not cool. But what came out of that was I got tons of emails from big companies like eToys going, “We want to do that cloaking thing.”
GREG: So that whole scandal actually cracked open that door of corporate America Fortune 500 IP delivery stuff. It wasn’t really about stuffing keywords or anything; we used it for things like testing new site designs. So I could come in and say, “Hey you should rebuild your site. It should look like this and be structured like this,” and they would say, “Yeah, we just spent two million dollars on it and we’re going to redesign it the fourth quarter of next year.” So I could come in and prove my case because I could take their content, restructure it in basically text files, and we could serve it to the bots and I could show them how much better it ranked. So the cloak page would rank, people would click on it, and we would send them to where the content really was, but it was always a legitimate match and then we could use that data to go in and argue for the budget, so it was kind of a temporary fix and a tool to prove your point. But things like flash, a lot of the stuff that big big brands of people expect to see, was kind of Google's dilemma. I know a lot of sites in those days that did get outed but never disappeared because Google wasn’t finding them.
MARK: Do you think they just made a brand list of the fortune five thousand? It’s not an elegant answer but…
GREG: It’s possible. All engines engage in hand jobs, they do, it’s part of the business. Probably more-so back then than there is now. I think Google with the link citation thing really helped fix that a lot, because whether or not they can index the page and read it, they can tell what other people are saying and where that site exists. It’s something that’s not needed as much these days, but that’s where it kind of all started. It was a great gig for a while; it was a lot of fun.
MARK: Yeah, and it seems like it was different too, like there was a window where you really paid attention to three or four engines, it wasn’t like, “This one owns it.”
GREG: Yeah, and each one was different. That was the other thing that made cloaking real appealing as far as a tool, because what Excite liked was different than what AltaVista liked, so you could serve four different versions of the page depending on who was asking for it and do well in all of them.
MARK: Tweaked for whatever they’re listening for...
GREG: Absolutely. It was very technical and very challenging, but entertaining. That thrill of like, “Ah, I figured it out.”
MARK: Yeah, and I guess there must have been, like you said, if Green Flash caused all of these problems then cloaking gets this bad name, when it really did have, and still does, some nice applicable things.
GREG: The nice thing now, and we still use IP delivery in some form or another in pretty much every project, through the linking thing it really kind of neutered cloaking as a tool to stuff keywords, because the bottom line is if the algorithm is good, a keyword stuffed page shouldn’t rank whether humans can see it or not. So once the algorithms get better to where they don’t reward that kind of on-page behavior, doesn’t really matter whether you cloak it or not. So now-a-days it’s just more of a tool for maintaining crawlablility and making sure, especially with really large sites, we check for things like on a catalog site with a lot of different sort functions, pages that generate a lot of duplicate content or pages that Google doesn’t think is of any value anyway, we cannot serve those sort links, just little things like that without impacting the usability for humans. Because that has value for you, right? You might want to sort by all the shoes that are by this particular brand or by price, but the content on the page is basically the same, it’s just getting resorted in order. So we would just find loops and traps where the bots were getting in and getting stuck; a lot of dynamic sites even when they re-write the URLs they don’t realize that doing that alone doesn’t fix the problem, you can still generate the duplication they just look prettier. So you have to go in and really find all of the possible ways on a big site that a URL can be generated and find where there are duplications. So we use crawling tools; we can crawl and identify duplicate titles and be able to spit out and go, “Hey, you have a problem here: I would fix it.” And you know, Yahoo! cloaks, if you go to Yahoo!’s home page you can look at a little section that says “The Market Place” where they have ads to clients, well if you go to that as a user agent with Google those ads are replaced with links to deep internal Yahoo content. So, little stuff like that goes on still to this day all over. It’s not a black and white, “Ooh it’s bad,” it can be a great tool.
MARK: And I have heard too, what you were talking about earlier, the white hats and the black hats.
GREG: That’s all silly.
MARK: (Laughs) But there is no Black Hat. There are no people that are just always engage in…
GREG: Um, well here’s the thing, I think what people don’t really understand about that whole designation and all of the horror stories and, “Oh, it gives SEO a bad name,” and all that stuff, is that 99% of it is not done on behalf of a client. The affiliate spaces, we call them “Crack heads” because the joke was that affiliate marketing is like the crack cocaine of the internet, a lot of SEO guys abandoned doing client work, and that’s how they make their living. They compete in very competitive spaces where you have to break the rules. You can’t go into online poker and not be willing to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty; you just can’t for the most part. So when all of that stuff gets busted people are like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe…” and if it is done on behalf of the client it’s usually the client that asked for it to be done. That’s the other thing that people don’t really get is that big companies look at it like, “Well I get in trouble, I’m so-and-so brand, I’ll just call Google and get it fixed.” There are different rules for those companies. The BMW case is a great example, right, they got punished for not even a full twenty-four hours, because as a search engine you can’t not show BMW when you search for BMW, right? Whereas your little mom and pop, they’ll obliterate you off of the face of the earth forever. Yeah, it was crazy times doing all of that kind of stuff, but that’s the thing, and the other thing about that aggressive stuff is that there was great R and D. I always looked at it like my own projects were R and D that sometimes pays for itself, you know, you invest the money to push the algorithm to find the flaws, because a lot of that stuff will give you a better understanding of how it works and you can take that information and apply it to a white hat world; the lessons you learn by "spammin and jammin" are very applicable to other projects, not to that extreme of course, but when you learn things like how anchor text affects, and .edu's and all that kind of stuff, that a lot of White Hats never get the experience to do because they just don’t know, and they are going off of what they’ve learned in a forum or a blog post, and they don’t really have the practical experience to know. We don’t do a lot of it anymore but I’ve mellowed with time (laughs).
MARK: So one of the goals of being able to talk to the folks who have been at it a long time is trying to find a place for the new folks that are coming on. These conferences are growing. More and more people are getting involved and they have to. There are places where you can go and get some good information. My own personal observation is from the group of folks I know and trust, it’s all valid if you listen to the context of the conversation, but they’re seldom used in context so these quotes are pulled out and pulled against each other as though they’re conflicting. I think it’s easy for someone to get confused. So, what kind of things would you recommend for someone who is just getting started to try and get a handle on this stuff?
GREG: Uh, shut up and work. Honestly, especially for the new up and comers, it’s like, “Stop blogging, stop pounding your chest and trying to draw attention on the front side, and go to work and do stuff,” the difference between me working for a client and new guy isn’t really that I know more specific stuff, it’s that I have more experience. I can better predict how a search engine is going to react to a strategy they’re thinking because I’ve done it; I’ve seen it happen many variations over time, even though you work with different spaces and different clients, you do get to the point where scenarios repeat themselves, and so that’s really the biggest advantage of the old timer guys is that they have so much experience under their belt. And doing that in a time when algorithms were constantly changing. It’s not really like that now; for the most part since 2002 it’s whoever has the most links wins. Boiled down, there is other stuff playing that you have to factor in now, but it wasn’t like that in the day. The amount of time that you spent trying to test stuff and really pin point what worked and what didn’t. You make a bunch of changes on your site and now you rank better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those changes caused it. Now with all of the off-page factors it’s much more difficult to make concrete statements and new people always want black and white concrete, and there is just so much crap floating out there that is not necessarily true. I never start a statement with, “This is how it works…” what it really is, is, “Based on my experience and what I’ve seen and what tests we’ve done, this is how I think Google approaches this…” but I don’t know for sure. Even the engineers that work there don’t know. Sometimes a machine that size just does stuff and they’re baffled too. Privately it’s like, “Look at that result,” and they’re all, “Huh, I have no idea why that’s there.” You know it just happens. There is a lot of hurry up and wait in this business. You can’t be knee jerk and react instantly to changes and tweaks that might not be the cause of the problem. You know, somebody left the room and accidentally unplugged something, right? Or they do roll backs, they do a lot of that, where they roll out a new idea on one day to see how it works out, the spam will jump, “Oh my gosh, Google’s results suck,” well that’s because they turned off some spam filtering and they’re trying to write algorithms to fix the problem so they don’t have to patch it with filters after the fact, right, and Yahoo is really big on this, they’ll turn that stuff off anytime they roll out a new feature that typically gets launched with no filtering and results go crazy and everybody is running around, “Oh my gosh what do I do?” Hurry up and wait. Sit back and do nothing. It’s a very long-term trend that you want to look at, not specific stuff.
MARK: Any trusted resources out there that you could say when someone is getting started, “Hey do this. Go here” Or a book, a conference, a website, a training class, or someone to read about?
GREG: There is a ton of great knowledge based sites. Obviously Rand’s site is full; he writes a lot of blog posts. He’s really good at teaching really fresh and new people and getting them up to speed with more technical concepts. Not every site is like that. Danny is more of a reporter now, rather than in the old days…
MARK: Which site?
GREG: SearchEngineLand. There is still a lot of great content on SearchEngineWatch, a lot of great articles. I think the key thing is, I don’t get really bogged down with minutia I have friends that are algorithm freaks, right, the best one is Bill Schlosky the dude is an absolute genius. If you hear him speak an opinion it’s like your head hurts because he’s so good. I don’t even read patents and stuff anymore, I wait until Bill reads it and I read what he says it means and then I’m good to go. I used to do all that stuff, but it’s like, “Wow, there’s all these guys that thrive on that stuff,” but if you get caught up in that and you don’t step back and see the big picture, it’s more about trying to figure out not just what they’re doing now, but where they’re trying to get to and planning your strategy based on understanding what the goal is so you’re ahead of what’s coming and not reacting. I’m not so sure a lot of the young people get it. And they’re not willing to, I’m being very general here, they’re not nearly as tough mentally as the people who started earlier because we didn’t have people to teach us, and we had to blaze through and learn it on our own, and learn from each other, and we shared even with our competitors. Now it’s like everything is so out in the public and what kills them the most is every now and then when this up and coming blogger finds some great tip and they get short-sided and they look at that as killer blog fodder that is going to get their name out there; when the thing that they found has far more value in the long term by keeping it for yourself and learning how to use it for your clients. Then you run out of cool things to blog about at some point, and then what? You know what I mean? A lot of that goes on. It’s like, “Dude, that’s a great thing, why would you tell the world about that?”
MARK: What about if I name some places like, we already mentioned SearchEngineLand and SearchEngineWatch…
GREG: WebMasterWorld is a good one. I spent 4+ years there as an admin helping run that place. There is a lot of information there.
MARK: Oh, yes. What about SEO book?
GREG: Yeah, Aaron’s book is great. It’s funny because when Barbara got into it, in the last couple years she has said, “Hey I actually want to learn what you do and get involved and participate,” and I really didn’t have the time to train her myself, so I bought her Aarons book. The cool thing about his book is that he updates it, and he’s a really smart guy; very interesting character. He is one of those people that gives this industry such personality because you meet him up front and you think, “He just looks like a dork,” and I mean that in the nicest way, but he’s a good writer and he’s really smart. And the thing about him, he’s one of the guys that did put in the time and build the sites, he’s very experience based, so when Aaron says something I trust that it’s backed by working experience and I know that what he’s saying, even if it’s not the exact take I would have on it, it is a well reasoned hypothesis. Basically, based on experience not just, “Oh, I read that somewhere,” I’m not just regurgitating a great blog. WebMasterWorld is great. There can be a lot of noise there. There is a ton of content in that place. You know, those sites started out… we just worked at home by ourselves and that was just like our water cooler. Back then nobody knew, what Google is. When someone asks “What do you do?” I can say “Oh I’m in search marketing.” Most people in my non-web friends group, at least have a basic understanding of what that means now. Back then, I got a call one time from my daughter who was in the sixth grade, and she’s like, “My teacher is mad at me because I couldn’t tell her what you do for a living, so I need you to explain it to me so I can go back tomorrow and explain to my teacher what you do for a living.” You know, and my son was in class, “I think my dad is an exterminator. He works with spiders.” Things like that…
GREG: So that’s come a long way, which is nice.
MARK: Well, MMG is not around anymore, but Jill Whalen and Bruce Clay…
GREG: Grandpa we call him.
GREG: He’s old as dirt. Good guy though.
MARK: He is a good guy. Tons of content out there to read about; there is a certain amount of safety, I can send someone there and I know they’re going to get a better picture of what’s going on.
GREG: And everybody has their own niche and what they do, and Jill is great with the white hat stuff and the long way to do things, and content and all of that stuff, she’s probably not the person you would go to with a big technical project but she’s fine with that. She knows what her space is and she serves her people that reads her stuff really well; smart gal. She has definitely been around…
MARK: Experienced based.
MARK: Shari Thurow is another one. She has a usability passion.
GREG: Let’s pass on that topic. (Laughs) She, yeah…
MARK: Well, I mean conversion in the end…
GREG: But it’s funny that you mentioned her because back in the day she was one of the big contributors to I-Search and it turns out it really wasn’t always her. I heard a rumor that her husband Grant was writing some of it, because it was all about getting known and instead of being two voices it was plural voices and she used to write a bunch of stuff, and she always came from the stand point, and for the most part still does, that all of her clients were psyched that she built from scratch. So when you do that kind of SEO work it’s great because you don’t have problems to fix, you can do it right the first time. She used to always say, “I have a hundred percent success rate of getting my clients ranked,” and it’s like, “Of course you do. You built the website,” but when you start venturing into more consulting-based stuff, walking into a big company and saying, “What you need to do is tear down your site and re-build it.” That doesn’t really fly. They want solutions, they want plan B, option C. That’s where I got into doing that alternative kind of work, where it’s like you go to a client and say, “Hey this would be the best approach but if you absolutely can’t do that here are the ways that we can fix that, and here is the risk associated with that. You guys make the call.” To me that’s what a consultant’s job is, to provide solutions with answers. Not to lecture and preach. There is just not a big market for that. I’m kind of an ADD guy, so I like working with different clients and to be focused in just that one space is just not that exciting to me.
MARK: And you’re right, they have a lot of money in those sites and they don’t just tear them out because someone says to...
GREG: And the egos, that’s another big thing… I typically like to fly out and meet the team and say, “Hey I’m going to say stuff that’s going to hurt your feelings. Get over it.” The VP of Marketing, if he’s on my side then that’s good to go, the next is the guy teaching, it’s like, “I’m not really your enemy. I’m going to make you do a bunch of stuff that you think is absolutely stupid because you’re not looking at it from the right perspective.” It’s like, “Hey can we build this page?” “Sure, you can build it in flash if you want, but just so you know there is an estimated 100,000 people today searching for what that page is about so if you’re cool with giving up that potential traffic, build it however you want. As long as you know what you are going to potentially pass up.” Once you frame it that way it becomes, “Oh, maybe we should listen more.”
MARK: How do you teach that? You step into these places and they’re calling you because at least one person in the company admitted they want some help, but probably not everybody.
GREG: Um, I’m just kind of an ***hole about it, really. I always tell clients, “You know what, this is not an ala carte, this is not a buffet, this is not a pick and choose what I say. It all works together, so you’re either committed or... especially if you want to hold me accountable in anyway.” I kind of got out of the whole corporate work because the wheels turn slow, and you can tell them ten things and they do one thing half*** and not the other nine, and they are like…
MARK: “...It didn’t work.”
GREG: Exactly. So the smart companies are willing to check the egos at the door and listen and learn. It’s important too, to go in there and point out what they’re doing right, or potentially right; learn to be a little better at not crushing egos and upsetting people only, “I like where you’re going with that, here’s how you can clean that up and make it better, and here are the problems that you are potentially going to run into if you commit to this idea completely the way you’re doing it now. With me it’s always about trying to set something up now that is scalable, that can grow, can continue to gain search traffic over a time, and some point down the road just becomes this SEO machine that just ranks well without chasing links all the time and that kind of stuff.
MARK: Have you ever stuck your toe in the bucket big time?
GREG: As in how?
MARK: Like have you had a major screw up where something just didn’t go right for a client? This is the whole thing of testing and experimenting with your own stuff, that’s another thing.
GREG: Uh, yeah, I think every SEO has had their, “Yeah, that didn’t really work out the way I thought,” that’s why I always say…
MARK: But there are lessons there, I mean life is that way.
GREG: Right, I look at it like I’m a weather man. I think I’m a really good weather man, but there are times when you say it’s going to be 75 degrees and sunny and somebody’s party got rained on. That’s because we don’t control everything. We react and we give educated guesses based on what we’ve seen and the experience of our friends and colleagues that we’ve talked to and shared with, but there are always times where I think, “They’re going to turn right,” and they turn left, it happens, but for the most part it’s correctable or it’s not the end of the world. It’s all about prepping the client and making sure they understand, “Hey this is not an exact science. I know you want me to say, ‘If you do this, this, and this, you’ll absolutely be number one forever,’ it doesn’t work that way. But what I can tell you is that you are going to be in the best position to react and role with those changes as they happen and recover from them quicker than your clients, your competitors, and things like that.” That’s kind of the real way to go with it.
MARK: Do you coach that ground work: unique title tags, relevant words, H1 tags, good on-page practices?
GREG: You know, it’s kind of interesting, I do a lot of work with clients that have in-house teams, so it’s not like they’re out-sourcing it, but I come in and guide the ship. The thing is now-a-days the downside of in-house is that to get a staff the kind of pay rates that a company is willing to pay, means they have to hire green people. You can be a great SEO but when all of your experience is working in-house for one company, you’ve only worked in one particular space, and each space on the web is unique and different. So you can be really great at the technical stuff and understanding how page rank works and all of that kind of stuff but your ability to excel is often time limited by the fact that you are confined to this one area. So in those situations that’s where it works out really well to bring in a consultant who has worked in multiple spaces so he can kind of pull in that extra knowledge base and apply it to what you’re doing and have a better opportunity to be able to predict where it’s going to go and how it’s going to work down the road. And it works out pretty well. I don’t write people’s title tags. I will explain to them the basic strategy and taxonomy structures and things like that, and how I prefer to write my… well, you know, there is not one best way; 60-80 characters with the keyword in the front… it varies on the phrase you are looking for and whether it’s an internal page and all that kind of stuff. I always have clients look at what the search results show, are pages showing up that are partial matches? Is the phrase in the front for all of the pages showing up? Can we attack this phrase by having another page rank for it because it’s a secondary term? And that will be different in every space you look at. Are you up competing against zillions of micro sites only about one topic, and you have a site all about fruit, but you want to rank for “Apples” but all of the sites that rank for “Apples” are just about apples. That’s going to dictate in a lot of ways your strategy. How do you conquer that with a big all encompassing site on content on all different topics when each individual topic on your site is its own niche.
MARK: And currently being owned by those types of sites. It almost says, “Go to another site.”
GREG: Right. Are you on track to become a big authoritative thing, this is different. An authoritative site can rank stuff purely on on-page factors that a younger site can't, and that’s what I do a lot of preaching about now is that whole, we call it “the SEO nirvana” thing, it’s not about chasing anchor text right now, it’s really about building authority so at some point you get to a place where SEO is just about clicking the publish button, right? Forbes.com, sites like that, they publish in our going ranks, not because there are external links pointing to it with the anchor text they want, it just ranks because an engine like Google will trust the on-page factors of a site like that more than they do… it almost brings it full circle back to the old days, when you get to that point. I think that is missed a lot now-a-days, especially with widget marketing and things like that. You know that story that Matt Inman who worked for SEOmoz, he wrote that post recently about how they pushed out this widget for online dating and they got all of these links and they ended up getting penalized. It’s worth the read if you go to SEOmoz Blog, but basically when he left the company he went to work for a company that does online dating, and he built all of these cool little quiz widgets, they didn’t really have anything to do about dating, but they imbedded a link and they gave them away for free, and they got thousands of links on the site, and within a year was the top page for online dating and then they pushed it a little extreme and started pushing links to other “Pay day loans,” and things like that, and I think the Register wrote about it and then Google torched it all. That’s kind of a short-term way to attack, we call it “Brute Force” it’s like brute force SEO. If they would have done the same widget with just a logo of the company and not worried about the anchor text part of it, those links over time would end up on better sites and create authority to the point where they would ultimately rank for dating terms, even without the anchor text. It’s a longer term thing, but you getting short sighted about anchor texts and you kind of miss the boat. An example in that blog post is Matt’s user name on SEOmoz is “Oatmeal” well, you search for “Oatmeal” SEOmoz ranks number five above Quaker Oats, not because the word Oatmeal is in any of SEOmoz’s Widgets or Chicklets or, you know, that just says SEOmoz, but because the site has an established level of authority that is so high, the algorithm looks at it and goes, “I know there is no anchor text pointing to this, but we trust this site and this page, therefore…” Now, it’s probably not a great result. There are plenty of examples where Google’s approach to that is kind of extreme I think, but the point being is, how do you get on path to become an SEOmoz and have that kind of weight, right? I guarantee you Rand never thinks about real big picture SEO stuff, he just writes content, but that’s a longer process.
MARK: Right, but it lasts longer too.
GREG: It does. You weather the storm better.
MARK: Yeah, that’s a tougher sell too, because someone with a checkbook wants results.
GREG: Yeah, and you can actually go to a client and do both. We do buy links for clients but we try to use them as a short-term, get an initial bump now so we can move up some and start making some more money, make the CEO happy and then once we’re in that position, we work on the longer term stuff so at some point we can turn those links off. We do a lot of blended stuff like that. The reality is that you’re in space and everybody is buying links, you’ve got to do it regardless of what the engines say. If you sit around and wait for the engines to enforce their rules on everybody, how do you tell that to the boss who’s getting his a** kicked? “Our sales are down and we’re on page two,” it’s like, “Well, everyone is buying links, but you’re not supposed to buy links.” I’ll tell you what he’ll tell you, “Go out and buy me some damn links.” That’s just the reality of our world.
MARK: Yeah, I used to see those guys at the shows. I don’t see them on the floor anymore.
GREG: Link broker guys?
GREG: It’s a tough gig right now. They take a lot of heat. We don’t do a lot of big broker stuff anymore because they are kind of on the radar and I feel bad because those guys that started it are good friends and I’ve known them forever, and back before they were, you know, text link has a Patrick Gavin, when he started he used round up college newspapers. He was really under the radar, and he had great links. It just caught on, the problem is that it grew and it’s hard for a company like that. They just become the target and the example that is used to scare the masses into behaving, which is sad.
MARK: Yeah, and underneath that is a great idea.
GREG: Oh, incredibly entrepreneurial; really nice guy, Patrick. It’s sad that I see people like that treated like a criminal. It baffles me.
MARK: And Google, I can’t remember where I saw this, but their numbers were getting close to 70% of search.
GREG: Uh huh, that’s not good.
MARK: Yeah, what was it on its way to 80?
GREG: Well and then if you add all of the other services that they run and control, I mean, it’s scary.
MARK: Do we really want just one company kind of doing all of that?
GREG: Well, it’s like the analytics thing, now they have the program where they will take your data and share it and aggregate with… I was saying in the beginning, why would you get your analytics from the same company you buy your ads from? Because it’s in their interested for your competitors to know what ads are working for you, so prices go up. But out of convenience, I caved; I use Google analytics just because it’s easy. You get to the point where their system is free, and you’re paying a lot of money. We used to use Index Tools a lot and it was pretty pricy.
MARK: So where is stuff going? What could the software industry do to help you make your job better, easier, to get more done faster?
GREG: I don’t know because we do all of our own software work. I’ve certainly used all of the off the shelf kind of stuff and there were always things that I wish it did, just little things, so we just kind of built it ourselves. I mean, I lived off of off the shelf tools for years, but now it’s just easier to have people on staff that get my vision, you know, and with us I don’t spec stuff out, I just tell them the idea of what I want it to do and they build it; which is a pretty neat thing with programmers, not all programmers can see that big picture and get the marketing part of it. They write great code, they’re geniuses, but…
MARK: Yeah, it’s like if you try to hire a contractor to do that, they have to spend so much time learning who you are and what you’re about. But with these guys you’ve got all of this history with them, you mention a couple sentences, and they’re off.
GREG: Yep, sometimes I don’t even have to finish it and it works.
MARK: What do you see coming down the pipe?
GREG: Well hopefully the Microsoft, Yahoo! deal will get back on track - that would be my biggest thing. I think that the board of directors should all be fired.
MARK: Of Yahoo!?
GREG: Yeah, for not taking the deal. I mean this industry desperately needs that deal.
MARK: Because you want to see someone that can stand up?
GREG: They would at least be, even combined, they would probably be around 33 – 35% market share maybe? But that is at least enough foothold to where Google might have to be more reactionary or pay more attention, because there is almost an alternative; you know what I mean, there is no pressure like that on them at all, so it’s their way or the highway. Google has been my home page since 1999, I use it as my main search engine, I love all the guys that work there in general, I’m not one of those, “Ooh their conspiracy…” you know, “trying to take over the world thing” but with that growth and that size does come a little arrogance and “Their way is always the right way,” they’re really big on that. I mean little things like why you can’t allow me to custom… you know… “Well, we found that most users don’t want that,” it’s like, “So what, you have the money, make it to where I can.” But they don’t need the brand evangelists anymore. I liked it better when they were…
MARK: A little hungry.
GREG: Because they really grew off of that. I mean, I probably went around to all of my friends and I evangelized about Google, “This engine is really cool you’ve got to check it out,” and I set their home pages to it, and that’s really how they grew. And now it would be great to see some parody.
MARK: Yeah, I’m thinking the exact same thing on that merger. I think it would be good for all of the same reasons.
GREG: I mean I wanted Microsoft to make it on their own; three equal players would be great to me. That was one good thing about the old days, you really never always rank great in all of them, but if you hit two of the four or three of the four, life was great.
MARK: Good traffic, right.
GREG: Yeah, good traffic, good money, you could sustain a hit and it not be the end of the world, and now it’s not like that; you lose Google you’re toast, you really are.
MARK: Yeah. I don’t know I’ve never seen that number go down. I have not seen the share number go down for about 6 or 7 years.
GREG: Well, and even if it does, it’s probably going to move to other properties that they own and control, right? The battle for the social networking sites and the things like Facebook and the other ways that people are now getting information, that’s another good reason for that merger I think, because there are a lot of battles still yet to be fought, and acquiring companies they don’t really know what to do with, but they know at some point, you know like the analytics move was genius. If you think about all of the signals that Google has now, and now they’re getting to the point where potentially you cannot rank as well unless you use Google’s services. Because if you have all of that analytic data, I mean, I would be willing to bet that if you did a poll on just random top 7 out of 10 sites on the homepage use Google analytics that would be my guess.
GREG: So they’re getting all the bounce rate data. I mean I’d like to see that data, it would be interesting, cause yeah it’s in their source code and everything, so having all those data sources those companies they own FeedBurner, for example, that’s how they can tell the difference between a spam blog and a real blog is if you’re on FeedBurner they know how many people actually subscribe and read your site. If you are a review me post site that only has two subscribers… so now if I choose not to use FeedBurner, I might have 20,000 subscribers but I prefer the strait link of my regular feed, but I potentially could be disadvantaged because of that, because those are great signals, but they control the signals. So it’s like Google always says, “We have 200 signals,” well, 50 of those signals are coming from other tools and other sources that they own and control, there are only 150 signals for the person that doesn’t use Google products. That to me is kind of sketchy.
MARK: Right, right.
GREG: It’s a scary place. And I totally understand why they want to use the signals because they are good. If you can track the click from your home page and then you can tie that in the back end to analytic data that shows that that person was on that site for five minutes. I’m not saying they are doing it at that depth and that level, but they certainly have the data to get there. They’re real big on collecting stuff now and figuring out what to do with it later, I think. So just as an example, we’ll just go back to using index tools and ditch Google analytics, as soon as it’s free from Yahoo, because it better be number one, and number two, now I don’t have to give my analytic data to the person that controls the world. But their way of keeping people from doing that could be to turn up the knobs on their own company signals and then what? So, it’s interesting times.
MARK: That would be an interesting A/B test.
GREG: Uh huh, exactly.
MARK: When is Yahoo going to do that?
GREG: I haven’t heard an official date, but I haven’t really been keeping up on it.
MARK: Tim said there was an internal company meeting and there was a whole bunch of folks in there for the merger, and there were folks against it.
GREG: The majority of the share holders were for it.
MARK: Yeah, how often do you get a… wasn’t it an overnight 44% uptick?
MARK: It was huge.
GREG: It’s the board’s fiduciary duty to look out for this share, that’s what they do, and I think that decision was more ego; not wanting to be owned by the evil empire.
MARK: Maybe it was 62%, but the lift was significant over yesterday’s closing price. So if you thought, “Well, no, no, no, they’re offering 62% but I think we might be able to get 70%,” well you are asking me to take a risk, this is a sure thing. What they are really saying is, “I really think it’s going to be three times better,” and I want you to ride that with me. That’s bull.
GREG: Once the deal is done it’s just a huge cluster f*** after that. You know, they have so many overlapping products and on top of that they have incompatible platforms, right? Yahoo is all, “Free BSD, and…” Microsoft likes to convince people they run all of their stuff on Microsoft boxes; that’s not true I don’t think.
MARK: But with web services those two platforms can talk to each other.
GREG: They can, but I don’t know, it’s kind of like a red state/blue state conversation, isn’t it? You know what I mean, the people that support open source, they don’t talk well with each other, and when you bring in people from such different perspectives… I know that when Yahoo! went through the thing with AltaVista and Fast, I think they picked the wrong technology. Fast in my opinion was by far the best algorithm engine with all of the stuff they acquired. But now you are bringing in engineers from AltaVista, and they believe in this way, and the head butting, and the egos, and people leaving, so a big merge like that doesn’t necessarily mean a better search engine for quite a while. But it would put Microsoft’s ad platform, which is by far the best, I mean that’s the one thing… they just don’t have the users, and Yahoo’s attempt with that piece of crap that they launched that nobody uses, I don’t even remember the name of it…
GREG: Yeah, Panama was supposed to be the savior right? And that didn’t happen. So if you combine the search volume… MSN scraps the idea of running an algorithmic search engine, and Yahoo scraps the idea of their ad platform that they ruined, and if you combine those two that can be pretty powerful. Then when you think of all the demographic data that those two companies have, it’s far beyond Google.
MARK: And Yahoo is a healthy company.
GREG: Yeah, they have a lot of great ideas, a lot of great products, Yahoo Pipes and things like that. They do a lot of really cool stuff that I would like to see become more prominent, for whatever reason they just can’t find a way to get people to pay attention.
MARK: Yeah. So you got a foot in the bucket, challenges you had to push through, it sounds like it was “Just don’t give up. Go back to it. Get to work.”
GREG: You know, the scary thing is, when somebody does buy into your big master plan and theory and then you’re waiting, and sometimes it doesn’t kick in, we had a project that we started for a large company that involved a huge restructure of everything. It was a company that had good search traffic to begin with, but had years of stuff that needed to be cleaned up, and we did it right around the time of the big Daddy launch and Google kind of changed the whole supplemental index, so we were rolling this out during big algorithm upheaval, you know. That project took a lot longer to sort itself out than I thought it would...
MARK: Because of that…
GREG: Yeah, but fast forward eighteen months and I was right.
MARK: And they are in a good spot.
GREG: They are in a good place. Actually our tracking data was able to show, it was like, “Hey, these changes helped us even if we just break even, now that it’s all said and done, I can show you that your competitors went down. So you might not think it’s a huge assess because you wanted to double, but you came out of all of that stuff better, and your content is still generating traffic, and a lot of your competitors aren’t so much anymore because they didn’t see ahead and see where all of this stuff was going, and plan accordingly. Now they are stuck at rebuilding while they’re in the toilet, and that’s not a good place to be.” But those are certainly nervous nights, you know, (laughs) checking it every day, it’s like, “Oh, when is it going to bounce back?”
MARK: Yeah like a high-level 301 re-direct and you’re telling them, “It’s going hurt for a little bit, but it will come back.”
GREG: Uh huh.
MARK: And every day they’re checking it before you are.
GREG: Yeah, I think a lot of newer SEOs don’t understand the art of “promising less and delivering more.” Especially the clients who are like, “How much more will we get?” you’ve got to beat that off with a stick, and if you do throw them a number throw them something that is ridiculously low, “You might have a ten percent increase in organic search,” and in your heart and mind you know it’s potentially far greater than that.
MARK: You could double or triple it.
GREG: Yeah, and then they love you.
MARK: I’m thinking of a couple clients specifically that would say that. Well, those are pretty encouraging words I think. Thank you very much. We are going to join later on with Oil Boy, so what year did you guys meet? That’s a great lead in…
GREG: I started at WebMasterWorld in 2001, we met in person the first time at an event called Barcon, it was like the second Pubcon, in Ervine. They were clever; in the US we call them “bars” not “pubs.” So that was I want to say February 2002, maybe?
MARK: So the economy was starting to pick up at that point.
GREG: Yeah, yeah.