Interview with Michael Gray


Michael Gray

MARK: Hey, I’ve been bumping into you at conferences for quite a while, and we’ve just never really had a chance to talk much but I’d love to learn a little bit more about you and your company and also tell you what we’re up to. I’ve been a software developer for about 25 years and been involved in search for about 10 or 12 years, I’m still trying to trace that back. I have a number of projects going on right now, one is that I’m writing an article about the History of Search, and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about that this morning, if you have time. We did some really creative, innovative stuff many years ago and I guess some of that stuff is kind of dark now so we don’t do that anymore but I’m fascinated with search and helping people find relevant information and we’re creating some tools to help people do that, help the search engine marketers, etc. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve been at it for a little over a year now with this one tool that we’ve been working on, and we’re hoping to launch it this spring. Guys like you are extremely important to us; we have to be able to do things that save you time and you have to like the way it works. So at some point in time I would love to give you a demonstration.

MICHAEL: Ok. Sure.

MARK: And meanwhile, we have search clients and sometimes we get over our head, or we know that one of our colleagues is particularly good in an area and we just assume pass that work onto them to get the customer the best possible help they can have and we’re not always the best fit. So, understanding other people’s strengths helps us send good referrals your direction.

MICHAEL: Ok.

MARK: That’s kind of what we’re about. Our website is smartz.com. I’ve been really impressed with your knowledge and speaking skills and we have an event coming up that we are going to be hosting here in Bend, Oregon, and I wanted to talk with you about speaking opportunities – things like that.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I’ll just give you a little bit of background about me; I don’t know how much you know. I was working basically for a very large local retail, they sell jewelry and home furnishings and I was basically their in-house developer. Like everybody else I just kind of stumbled into search and SEO accidently looking to solve some problems, and I just started experimenting and reading some of the stuff and saw it was working and I sort of became the in-house SEO for a while. It worked out pretty well and the company made a lot of money from that and eventually the internal corporate structure changed when the founder passed away and his kids took over. It wasn’t the place for me at that point, so I started to make plans to go out on my own, and I’ve been out on my own probably four years now. I wish I had done it sooner.

MARK: Yeah! When did you start doing the jewelry SEO?

MICHAEL: Oh it was probably 1998 or 1999. Yeah, I started as basically an in-house programmer developer, I wasn’t a traditional programmer by trade, but I understood how the web worked, so I was able to learn enough programming that I could make each team play nicely together. The company they were using was a hosted shopping cart solution at the time, and they were paying like 10,000 dollars a month for the shopping cart; in fact, in 1998 and 1999 there just wasn’t enough e-commerce at all to support it – a 10,000 dollar shopping cart. So, the thing was just a hole in the water they were throwing money in.

MARK: Wow.

MICHAEL: Yeah they were looking to bring that inside and have their own cart, so we each kind of took an off the shelf cart package that was customizable, worked with it and made it work for us, for 1,000 dollars total investment we replaced a 10,000 dollar a month shopping cart kind of deal.

MARK: Oh gosh; which one was it?

MICHAEL: Computer Associates had one, I forget, Net Cart I think it might have been?

MARK: But it was from CA?

MICHAEL: I don’t remember the name; it’s been so long since I’ve talked about it. Again, it was very basic, there wasn’t a lot of sophistication to it and you couldn’t do a lot with it. But at that time, there weren’t really many choices available to you, unless you were willing to dig in and get your hands kind of dirty.

MARK: Right, it was so new, everyone was afraid of it.

MICHAEL: Yep. So once we kind of got that back up… and it took a good six months to get the shopping cart to the way we wanted, but once we did it was definitely worth the time and investment to get it going.

MARK: What did you write that in?

MICHAEL: Um, it was based on Cold Fusion, which I won’t touch at all right now when it’s just horrible but it was based on Cold Fusion and then the second generation of the cart we moved into a Microsoft cart in ASP.

MARK: What’s your favorite platform today?

MICHAEL: Oh, PHP, no question.

MARK: And, what is it about that platform that’s so attractive?

MICHAEL: It’s easy to get in there and monkey with. Most of the servers out there are running on Linux when you’re running ASP server, you’re always ending up paying more, it’s a more expensive platform to work in and everything doesn’t run natively in it, you can run ASP on a PHP server but there’s a middle interface layer that always throws a few quarks in your way. Like, I have one client now who their faith attention works in ASP, and they are putting a blog in, so WordPress runs in PHP, and we’ve got it to run mostly on the ASP side, but there’s a couple of weird little quarks – like when it converts to calendar per scheduled post, we schedule our posts to come out at a certain time every day, they don’t publish, and we’ve been looking around and there is just some odd little things, so we’re trying to come up with some little hack to make the thing work. I just found whenever you work with the PHP on the ASP, it’s just a pain in the butt. So, for clients there are many more PHP programmers than there are ASP programmers, so in the long run you’re going to end up paying more to keep it an ASP environment, and unless there’s something that you really need in ASP, it just doesn’t make sense.

MARK: Right. Are you running mono on Linux?

MICHAEL: Oh, I don’t get that far into it. I try to keep it as basic as possible. I know there are some people who go with special installations of Linux and PHP and all that stuff; I try and stay away from that if I can just because it doesn’t make your code as portable. Basically, from a developing standpoint, you want your code to be as portable as possible if for whatever reason your hosting company screws you in some way, you want to be able to pick up and move tomorrow without as little muff and puff as possible, and if you have all of these special hooks in with your hosting company and this special addition to PHP, that’s not widely available or some sort of special set up, you’ll run into a complication like that and you limit your choices.

MARK: Got it. Ok. You just started coding back in the jewelry store days?

MICHAEL: Yeah, it was some self-taught HTML. I took computers in school. I actually came from an engineering background, and that’s where that all started. I wasn’t technically a programmer by trade, but the real programmers always gave me a hard time by saying, “You know just enough to get yourself in trouble,” or “Just enough to make a real mess of things.”

MARK: What is it you like about SEO?

MICHAEL: It’s just a dynamic changing environment. You get to do different things every day. It’s a pain in the butt because I get up every day and I almost never get done what I think I’m going to get done during the day, just because stuff comes up, but doing the same thing day in day out is not the kind of thing for me; that’s not what keeps things interesting for me. I like to be doing different things, changing things around, things are constantly moving, people trying new things, and it’s interesting.

MARK: Who was your greatest influence in search?

MICHAEL: I don’t know that I have a role model there to say, I just see a lot of people doing interesting things. I like people who aren’t afraid to experiment. I like people that are out there trying. It’s ok if you try and crash and burn, but trying something new is usually where you learn.

MARK: Right, but you don’t have two or three bloggers, or two or three search folks that have just really kind of overall helped you over the years or you just respect their work, things like that?

MICHAEL: I don’t know that I have any mentors, per say, like I said, I read a lot of peoples stuff and there are a lot of people who I like to read but I didn’t really have a role model, sort-to-speak at that point saying “I’m going to be the next so-and-so when I grow up.”

MARK: Did you start off going to conferences?

MICHAEL: Um, not for a while, I probably didn’t go for about 2 or 3 years. Again, that’s another thing looking back, I wish I would have started going sooner because you actually learn more at a conference than you can, and the relationship that you can gain from people at a conference – that’s something that you’re never going to be able to get unless you go and meet somebody face to face.

MARK: Right, that part is awesome. I’ve enjoyed the conferences and getting to know people and its way better than just reading somebody’s email.

MICHAEL: Yep.

MARK: When did you start blogging?

MICHAEL: I started blogging just as an experiment probably 2003 or 2004. That was just so I could get an understanding of what it was. I never set out saying, “I’m going to be an A-list blogger,” or “I’m going to be the most read person.” That really wasn’t what I set it up to be, it was just an experiment.

MARK: Right. I’ve noticed I really admire and respect the way you take on Google. You usually have some pretty good points, and I think it makes for a really interesting discussion. I think it also kind of gets some things on the table that normally, gosh, I’m not going to hear...

MICHAEL: Yeah, I don’t know why everybody is so afraid of Google. Google screws up. Google is just like everybody else, they’re going to make mistakes and just call them on the carpet on it. Sometimes I go to the extreme because it’s maybe good theater, you know, you can say the same things and be a little boring, or you can make things kind of interesting for everybody. But still, they need somebody to challenge them, if there’s no one challenging them saying, “Hey wait a minute…” they’re just going to walk all over everybody, they’re no different than any other big company, that’s just the way things are.

MARK: Right. You mentioned theater; do you have a background in theater?

MICHAEL: No, absolutely not; not at all.

MARK: You’re just fun, you have a fun personality; it shows.

MICHAEL: Thank you. It’s from being picked on in high school; you have to learn how to develop that quick wit as compensation.

MARK: So, do you have any favorite tools? I use Aaron Wall’s stuff, and there are just a whole bunch of cool ones that I like, but do you have any that you really like?

MICHAEL: I’ve used some of Aaron’s stuff. I use SEO SpyGlass a little bit; SpyFu is a good one that I use.

MARK: Do you mess with Rand Fishkin’s SEOmoz? Do you use that stuff?

MICHAEL: I use some of his stuff. I like his Page Strength Tool, but again unless you remember, I got a preview when it was first being developed and it was actually when you were able to run multiple queries, it was pretty fast. Right now, unless you’re going to buy into the membership, it’s a little hard to use it that much because they’re trying to make money selling the tool – and I completely understand that – but it’s harder to come in there when a lot of tools are free.

MARK: Right.

MICHAEL: I’ve had some people develop private tools for me, and that sort of stuff, and I don’t release them just because it becomes a maintenance issue at some point; things are constantly changing with search engines and the way they spit things out and APIs and all that jazz, and if you’re not willing to devote to a long-term keeping up of the program it just becomes a headache for you. I made the mistake of putting something out there once, and something ended up changing, and I was like, “I just don’t have the time to fix this now.” And it just became a whole big deal so I said, “I just can’t push things up all the time,” I don’t have the time to devote to keeping up with development on this.

MARK: Right, it seems like if you don’t do that then you’re gone.

MICHAEL: Yeah, it’s a long term commitment and unless you realize that going in, that’s a mistake that a lot of people make I think.

MARK: Have you ever had a bad experience with CMS?

MICHAEL: I’ve tried a couple. Drupal was just a little too complicated for me to get into.

MARK: Which one?

MICHAEL: Drupal. Right now I really like WordPress. Out of the box it’s not very SEO friendly, it’s very easy to use, but it’s not SEO friendly. If you’re willing to play with the plug-ins a little bit and tinker with it, you can do a real lot with it. It’s free and if you’re willing to invest a little bit of time into customizing it, you can get a lot of stuff out of it. And again, if you can leverage that over multiple people and multiple clients, it makes for a much better solution for you. So, that’s my favorite tool. For the client work, 90% of the work that I do with clients, I push them onto WordPress. Even my own stuff is almost all in WordPress. The only stuff that’s not is stuff that requires really heavy data base interaction on its own, but other than that it’s just not worth it. Take advantage of what’s out there for free.

MARK: So what do you do with large clients who come to you and they already have stuff?

MICHAEL: Usually we are just working with what they have in place. Depending on the size of the client, sometimes it’s a pain in the butt to get them to actually change things because they move so big and so slow and that’s part of that world.

MARK: Right. So, would you ever just try to set up WordPress on their servers and make a section of the site WordPress so you’re comfortable?

MICHAEL: I see people sometime that freak out because WordPress is one of those things where plug-ins are constantly changing and the code has to be updated every two or three months, but you’ve got to have constant SEP access, and again, depending on the size of the company and the philosophy of the company, they’re not generally big on allowing outside SEP access.

MARK: Right.

MICHAEL: There are some issues there.

MARK: But you’ve never had one in-particular just really be horrible.

MICHAEL: Oh, I had somebody who I signed with in February – basically I was supposed to put up their blog and get everything all set to run and they were supposed to take it over – and I still haven’t gotten SEP access from February.

MARK: Oh gee. Ha-ha. Ouch.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I email the guy every few weeks, and somebody calls me back and it just ends up being a big run-around. It’s a frustrating thing. I understand why those companies are like that, and their IT people are motivated to help me, there’s no benefit for them to letting me in, so they’re doing everything they possibly can to stone wall it.

MARK: Meanwhile time just keeps ticking by.

MICHAEL: Well, after the second month when they said they’re doing nothing I said, “Listen, I’m not going to kill you if I’m picking up the phone every week saying ‘Hey let me in’ and they are basically telling me no.” That’s not the right way to do business either.

MARK: Ha-ha; right. So, let’s say I have this fictitious customer come along, and I’m going, “Wow, we can’t handle this. I should probably find someone to send this to,” what kinds of work should we not send your way, and what kinds of work are you really well suited for?

MICHAEL: I do a lot of side-orders for people, with varying degrees of depth. Some of them are just more of a superficial thing, you know, “Take a look at us, see what’s wrong, tell us how to fix it, and nudge us in the right direction.” Other people I do a little bit more in-depth reviews for. I do a lot of social media for people; they’re probably my biggest clients, and blogging kind of ties in with that. And then there is just a little bit of reputation management out there for people.

MARK: How would we engage you on a social media project? What’s your charge rate, or how do you work?

MICHAEL: The basic package is I develop content pieces for people, I’m going to develop about five to six content pieces, we push them out over five to six month period, and that’s how that pretty much goes. One of the stories will be one of the home pages and one of the popular services, you can Digg or Stumble Upon, one of them will hit at least once. I’ve never had that not happen for anybody, but if it did I would keep trying at that point until something did happen but that’s basically the ways that works. If you wanted to get into something with custom programming or video or any of the other special stuff, that we have to kind of work on after because the cost will increase dramatically after that.

MARK: Did you say you put out five to six thousand pieces?

MICHAEL: No, five or six.

MARK: Oh, five to six pieces over a period of five or six months. Like a piece a month and you’ll write a story about that particular topic…

MICHAEL: Yeah, generally we put out one or two general pieces that are more targeted to everybody and then the rest of the pieces we target towards more niche areas just to get more of a deep penetration. But again, it depends on the client, where things happen to be. It kind of varies everything is kind of custom.

MARK: How many employees do you have?

MICHAEL: Um, the way that we’ve restructured, I actually only have the bookkeeper on the books, and I have about 12 other writers who write for me, they’re sub-contractors – it’s a tax structure, it’s the way they have things set up. And I’ve got a programmer who I use occasionally and he’s a sub-contractor too.

MARK: Do you own the company?

MICHAEL: Yeah.

MARK: Yeah, ok; we may be in need of some help ourselves. We’re not very good at that stuff. So what would that cost? Our website is smartz.com, and we’re getting into social media a little bit but we’ve been programming for a long time, so we’re kind of coming out of the box slow.

MICHAEL: Uh huh. Well, you’re basic social media package is $5,500. Again, that’s just for content. I can tell you that SEO stuff gets really dicey if you start trying to play the social game.

MARK: Oh I see. So if the subject is SEO…

MICHAEL: Yeah, basically the bigger services, your Diggs and your Propellers and those kind of places, they’re all very weary of SEO topics off the bat, and then when you start to get into the SEO specific spaces there are a ton of people already out there promoting themselves, so it get’s kind of difficult. It’s a tough space to play in; you have to kind of be careful what you’re doing there.

MARK: Ok. Well, what I ought to do is as we get closer to spring, I could probably come up and tell you a very specific subject that we would be highly relevant for. While it relates to SEO, it’s not direct, and maybe that would help take the pressure off of that.

MICHAEL: If you can go in with a programming angle opposed to an SEO angle it’s a world apart, even though you wouldn’t think so, but its WORLDS apart.

MARK: Right. Ok. So, what you really like about these platforms like PHP is that they’re simple, you can get in, you don’t have to put any money up, you can start building what it is you want to build without having to spend any money. Now, you mentioned you have to get SEP access and the updates are coming out, so what happens? You have 20 different servers out there for different clients, and then WordPress comes out with a new edition, do you run out and install it on all 20 of your clients or do you just kind of wait until they have an issue or a need for the upgrade?

MICHAEL: Usually, I have a dead server that’s out there that I put it on first because I’ve never had WordPress make an update that didn’t screw up something somewhere along the line.

MARK: Right.

MICHAEL: So usually clients don’t get stuff until its two to three weeks old, unless it’s a security patch; when it’s a major revision patch, sometimes it takes a month for all of the developers on the plug-ins and stuff to catch up and that’s just the way that all works, so yeah. It depends though, for people who I am maintaining the blogs for yes, I will schedule and say, “Ok, I’m going to bring your servers down this Saturday.” We’ll pick the time when it will be, generally the time when they have the lowest traffic point, so they have the least impact, and we do the upgrade at that point. Generally I upgrade my development server first, and I do some of my sites first just in-case something else creeps its ugly head back in, I know that it’s happened first. The clients are getting it after me, but there is the advantage of them knowing it’s all going to work at that point.

MARK: Right. That seems pretty smart.

MICHAEL: I did learn something from those old programmers. That’s the right way to do it.

MARK: Yeah, we have pretty serious “Quality Assurance Region,” that’s what we call it, “QA Region.” We bang on it and try to break it.

MICHAEL: Yep.

MARK: So, for speaking, when did you start speaking? We’ve got this event coming, what do we need to do to get you here?

MICHAEL: The speaking rate basically is $1,000 a day plus travel and expenses, whatever that happens to be. I would want to know what I’m speaking about before-hand so I can make sure that it’s something I am relevant for and it’s something I can speak with. I tailor things. I’ve done specific things for groups of layers. I’ve done things for real estate people. I can speak about SEO pretty much wherever you want me to go, I just try to keep things sought out at a general level, and then bring in as specific as I can, so they can get the most relevancy out of the speech at that point. If at all possible I do like to do Q & A with people, just because I think it helps; everyone has a question and hopefully that’s a little more engaging for them to learn from.

MARK: Right. Where are you located?

MICHAEL: I’m in Long Island, NY.

MARK: Long Island, wow, ok. So can you speak at both SES and SMX?

MICHAEL: Yeah.

MARK: So you’re non-competes don’t mix up there in that world, you’re fine.

MICHAEL: No, no, it’s just some clients. Like I have one person who has some computer equipment that they sell, that I can’t do anything with anyone else in that space, there’s only 2 or 3 of them out there, and I know one of them expired in the end of December, so I’m not really worried about that. Yeah, I spoke at SES New York, I spoke at SES San Jose, I spoke at the SMX show in Seattle, I spoke at the SMX in New York, I spoke at the Pub Con in Vegas; yeah I can speak anywhere.

MARK: And all those companies are paying the 1,000 dollar a day fee?

MICHAEL: No, no when I do a conference it’s a different kind of deal. Basically, conferences you’re speaking for free just so that you can get up there and talk to clients.

MARK: Right and you get a free conference pass.

MICHAEL: Yeah, that sort of deal. But if somebody wants me to come out and speak at a different event, that’s the 1,000 a day.

MARK: Got it.

MICHAEL: If it’s individual training, or that sort of thing, it’s kind of the same rate.

MARK: Are you going to be at SMX west?

MICHAEL: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’m on 2 or 3 panels there I forget.

MARK: So, you pretty much have to go to all of these things right? Like SMX West, SES San Jose, New York, Chicago…

MICHAEL: I go to the bigger ones. Some of the smaller shows I don’t necessarily go to because I do have to get work done at some point.

MARK: Yeah, like Travel and Local, those are much smaller shows.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I don’t go to those as much, unless someone has a specific need for me and they ask me to come, but the bigger shows are the ones I go to. I think this year it will probably be SES New York, San Jose, the SMX west show, I think they’re doing another SMX in New York in the fall – I’ll probably do that one, and I don’t know if Bret is doing one or two next year – but wherever he’s at.

MARK: So, what do you want to be doing in a couple years?

MICHAEL: I would like to have more in-house publishers at that point; that’s pretty much where I see things going. I think the affiliate days are coming to a close, there’s still some stuff out there, but those days are gone and if you’re not out there creating your own content and owning it at this point, as opposed to re-selling stuff, you’re not making the right move I don’t think.

MARK: So, affiliate, you sign up for somebody’s product, bring them a lead, and get some money?

MICHAEL: Yeah, you know again, you’re either selling someone else a product that’s selling someone a contact name or something like that. The affiliate days used to be really big, and I just think they are coming to a close, and you should really be owning your own content, selling your own advertising, monetizing it different ways… it’s where things are going.

MARK: Right. I did a couple little affiliate things. A friend of mine is really into his, he’s got affiliate stuff going all the time; it almost takes care of all of his personal expenses. Did you jump onto that band wagon kind of early on too?

MICHAEL: Yeah I was there, and again, I used to play a little bit darker so things would work for a while and then they would get hit, and it was great when things were working, but then when things get hit and your paychecks aren’t coming in, when you have a family and a house and regular payments you’ve got to make every month that up and down income just doesn’t really work.

MARK: Right, you’re gambling on some IP cloak.

MICHAEL: I suppose if you’re in a certain spot, you can do that, but my lifestyle couldn’t support that at that point so I had to go into stuff that had a little bit more stability into it.

MARK: Right. We set up a bunch of this stuff, gosh, probably 11 years ago… we had legitimate customers – pretty big companies – and they wanted a flash website, and they couldn’t rank worth a darn, so back then we called them “Spider Lounges” so spider would show up, and we had this little text file sitting out there for the spider, but we always took the words that were on the flash site and that’s the same stuff that was in the text file, we never manipulated that. I never thought about how you could manipulate that and really mess the engines up, and then I heard the engines complaining about people doing that and it just kind of made me a little wary.

MICHAEL: You can still make money doing the dark stuff, you just have to have a lot of nerve to keep it up, because again, I’ve seen people get entire networks torched and go from making a couple thousands to nothing in just a matter of 24 hours.

MARK: Yeah, and I don’t have that in me really. I’ve been earning an honest living, I’m forty-seven, I’ve been earning an honest living for twenty some-odd years, and I don’t tend to gravitate towards those things that tick people off. It’s just too easy to make a legitimate living doing the good stuff. There is so much work out there I find, for me anyway. I always hear about this ‘black hat’, ‘white hat’, and I’ve had someone else tell me, “Hey you know what; a ‘black hat’ is just a white hat in a pinch.” I suppose that’s probably true in some cases.

MICHAEL: Yeah, it just depends on the person where they are.

MARK: Yeah, you and Matt have great… I don’t know what it is… you’re not really against Google, you just kind of bring a perspective with Matt on the stage, and it’s just kind of entertaining… I think people really like that.

MICHAEL: Well, again, people would love to sit around and say, “Oh yeah, they hate each other,” but it’s not, I exchange emails with him every-so-often, and we certainly talk at conferences, no big animosity; we definitely have different viewpoints and we’re both fine with that, that’s the way things are.

MARK: And like you said, it does keep things really interesting, and it makes for “good theater,” if you will.

MICHAEL: Yeah, again, you could get up there and say things in an interesting way or you could say them in a boring way, and it makes everyone happier when they see something that’s interesting.

MARK: Right. So, it sounds like if I had a social media thing that I needed five or six elements built for five or six thousand dollars over a period of five or six months, you could take that one – you’ve got plenty of capacity it sounds like – and as long as it wasn’t in an area that’s either competitive for stuff that you’re doing, or in the area of SEO where it’s really dangerous, you’re probably fine; but again, I can get something real and get it in front of you and we can talk about if it’s a good fit.

MICHAEL: Ok, cool.

MARK: And then for speaking, if it’s a conference and it’s interesting and you want to be there, that’s different from if we need to just pay you to come out and talk to some folks.

MICHAEL: Yep.

MARK: its $1,000 a day, plus a plane ticket, a car, and some food.

MICHAEL: Yep.

MARK: Cool. Well, we’re going to be at SMX West in February, and I would love to touch base then, I’ll have some more information for you by that time.

MICHAEL: Ok, hit me up.

MARK: Do you have any other questions about what we’re up to or…

MICHAEL: Well, I was looking around, and I think I’ll take a look a little bit more once I get off line.

MARK: OK, well it’s a pleasure talking to you, and I don’t have a customer I’m staring at today, but I do have some pretty decent contacts that bring in some pretty cool stuff from time to time, and I really respect and admire your work, and I would love to work with you on a project.

MICHAEL: Ok sure, I’m here; give me a call if you need something.

MARK: Alright I appreciate it. Thanks Michael.

MICHAEL: Ok, bye.

 
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