MARK: We’re sitting here at SMX East with Jonathan Hochman. We just wanted to talk to you, my name is Mark Knowles with The History of SEO, and we just wanted to talk to you a little bit about your beginnings. If we could rewind, dates, names, and places is great. But go back to the very thing you were doing just before you got into SEO and walk us through how that introduction took place.
JONATHAN: Back in the early 90’s the Berlin Wall came down and one of the hot business areas, and I was in New York at the time, was to do some business with Russia. So I had to set up a consulting company; I was helping some Russians buy products from the United Sates, from Japan, from Europe, shipping things to Russia like photo copiers and fax machines. So anyway, we put together a website back in 1994. We ran a T1 line into our office; we had a server underneath the CTO’s desk…
JONATHAN: …it was a Dec Alfa. Pretty good machine; a lot of IO capacity. We had our web server running there and we ended up ranking pretty well for terms related to Russia and business, so we were getting tons and tons of traffic. Of course we had no real conversion and no real plan to do something and monetize that traffic, and that was really our mistake I think, and also a herald of things to come during the .com bubble, which developed in the late 90’s.
MARK: Wow, do you happen to remember what year that was?
JONATHAN: It was ’94 or ’95 when we were doing that. My friend Scott Blankstein set up a website called Web100.com, which listed the top 100 best websites. At the time he had been in graduate school before he came to the company, and at one point he had actually visited every single website on the internet, back when there were only like 24 websites.
JONATHAN: Scott also created a little utility called the Flat Tax Calculator, Senator Dick Armey had this idea to implement a flat tax, so Scott built a little thing that would show when you would type in your income levels it would tell you how much tax you would pay on the new proposal. One day Howard Stern mentioned this thing on his radio show and we just watched this traffic search that has been unequalled since then. We were normally getting hundreds of visitors a day, and suddenly we were having tens of thousands of visitors. It was an eye opener, to say the least. Too bad we didn’t have any method of monetizing that. I’m sure it accumulated a lot of links at the time, that old website; I wonder where it is now.
MARK: So how did you go from observing these huge traffic surges to the world of search engine optimization? If we go back to that Russian site for example, or maybe that’s not the one, but when did you first start getting into laying out a site that does that?
JONATHAN: I had another friend who in ’98 set up a website to market bar code scanners. He started out in a little closet office with two people. That business Barcoding Inc. became very successful. I was doing other businesses at the time; I kind of helped him start that and then I went off working on other things. Around 2003 I came back to him and became more actively involved in the marketing of that company, which had grown to fifteen employees at the time; they’re now a hundred. I worked there for a while really getting back into search marketing, because I had been out of circulation for several years. They were down in Baltimore and I was in Hartford and eventually it was a choice of either relocating or not, so I decided not to relocate and just to create a consulting firm and they were my first client.
MARK: So did it start off with title tags, and you noticed those pages ranking better?
JONATHAN: There definitely was a lot of working on content, both meta data and content, just to make it relevant and to focus more on what people wanted. And those methods that we were using then still work today. Even the first website I built back in 1994. The homepage was like an outline with links. It was a multi-level outline with links to all the pages in the site. It wasn’t very glamorous but it was a very effective hierarchy for organizing the information and showing people how to get what they wanted and coincidentally it used a lot of keywords, not because we were thinking about keywords, but just because they were the natural words to use. Those pages all did well; they ranked well. We always got comments back saying the site was informative and had a lot of unique and original information. So these things that worked in the 90’s, and worked earlier this decade, still work today. In that regard, I haven’t seen huge changes in how we do things.
MARK: When did you first become aware of Search Engine Strategies, or any kind of industry forming where you could meet with colleagues?
JONATHAN: Well, when I was working with Barcoding Inc., really probably around 2003, I started looking into this more seriously as far as, “How do we get these rankings?” So inevitably at that time whenever you searched for something you’d get a thread at one of these forums, quite often High Rankings forum. So the first person I met in the industry was Jill Whalen. That’s how I became more interested in search engine optimization.
MARK: And are you still working with those guys today, or how many people are in your firm today?
JONATHAN: It’s hard for me to count because I work mainly with contractors, so I have let’s say seven developers, a couple partners, and a few other people who help us with content sometimes. So it’s an organization of maybe ten or fifteen people in total. But yes, I do still keep in close touch with the people I met in the early days, and I really appreciate the help that they provided me in getting going.
MARK: So how do you go about training or learning when obstacles show up and ideas don’t work? I’m targeting this question towards the new folks that are just now learning about this and they’re trying to figure out how to get started.
JONATHAN: Well, Google is your friend. If you have a question you go to Google and ask and usually it will take you to a page that’s informative and within one or two steps get you to what you need. Especially within the SEO world, the pages that are authoritative will tend to rank well. I know some of the articles I’ve written that have ranked first for their target terms; they’re considered to be the definitive piece of information on that particular niche subject. So you can use Google to get whatever you need to know.
MARK: I’ve used that same technique myself and I’ve been at it a little while longer so I can discern good information from potential misinformation. But I’ve often wondered about the new person starting out with that method, only trying to figure out, “Always do this,” or “Never do that.”
JONATHAN: So those are two good words to avoid, “always” and “never,” because usually the right answer is “It depends,” but you do have to be a discerning consumer of information and I don’t know that there is really a way to wash that problem away. You always have to be careful of what you believe and what you pay attention to. I would say that what you want to do is look around at different sources of information and see where there is a consensus, and see who is kind of going out on a limb.
MARK: Do you know of any good books that you’ve read or heard about?
JONATHAN: Well, Bill Hunt wrote a book, Search Engine Marketing, Inc. It is considered to be the most reliable book on the field right now. Otherwise, there are plenty of good websites; SearchEngineLand.com is a great place to start.
MARK: What do you think about conferences for someone from a learning experience perspective?
JONATHAN: I really like the SMX conferences. I used to go to SES. I still go to SES sometimes. I’m up in New England so I go to all the SEMNE events, which is Search Engine Marketing New England, which is sort of like a mini local version of the big national conference. And I know that there are similar local groups in Dallas and Portland; I don’t know about any others, but those two cities have some.
MARK: Find a group nearby if you’re not on the east coast.
JONATHAN: Find a group or organize a group. Get together with your peers and talk about it. I think that talking with people in person in very valuable.
MARK: Excellent. Do you have any other favorite little tips or tricks to help someone get started?
JONATHAN: Well, it’s really just about paying your dues and putting in the hard work. There’s no real short cut other than to learn and to listen and don’t over promise your clients. Tell them the way things are. Say you may not know everything but you know people who can help you and you’ve got to do your best for them, and if you’re not sure of how to do something, you’ll go out and get advice; you’re not too proud to ask for help.
MARK: Alright. Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
JONATHAN: Thank you.