Interview by Kevin Ohashi of Ohashi Media
Aaron Wall is the CEO of SEOBook.com and one of the foremost experts in the SEO industry. SEOBook.com is a membership based educational website with private discussions and tools. Aaron also is an avid blogger and recently launched PPCBlog.com alongside his blog at SEOBook.com to cover both sides of the business.
Let’s start with a little bit of scene setting. What is your background in terms of education and interests? Also, can you tell me what you were doing before you started doing SEO? If you could tell us your story before your first SEO client (Greg if I recall correctly?) and how you made the transition.
As far as education goes, the only post high school education I have had was from the Navy nuclear power school. 2 weeks after graduating high school I joined the military (when I was only 17 – my mom had to sign a permission slip). I think my siblings caused enough trouble to where my mom thought the military would be good for me and keep me on the straight and narrow. That thesis proved false as I sorta hated the military lifestyle. Not just the issue with taking orders and doing arbitrary tasks, but the thought that I was literally wasting my life and “fighting” for a purpose-less cause.
My grandpa was in the military during WWII and there was at least purpose back then, but the military of today (especially the Navy) is a military without real enemies. So they make up for low morale by running more drills. And on drill work ups you sleep about 4 hours a day for about a month straight. They have you paint the submarine while underwater (illegal) and use you to suck up the fumes so the boat can look nice for a stupid arbitrary operational reactor safeguards exam (ORSE). They also kept oxygen lower than normal so you would be docile and energy-less (ie: drug you with low oxygen levels, a depressant), with the exception of during clean up days & during ORSE (when they would increase oxygen levels so you had more energy).
On my first underway there was a valve misalignment and during drills we lost oil pressure at the shaft so the shaft had to be stopped. I asked the kid I was sitting with “what happens if they don’t get that fixed?” and he shrugged his shoulders and in a deadpan voice stated “we will probably die.” On my second underway I got to stay in Puerto Rico, and when I got dropped off they left my stuff on the boat. So I had to eat for 3.5 days on $3 😀
Then when I got back to the boat they offloaded my uniforms with the SEALs, so I had to buy all new uniforms. Then when we got back to the military base I found out that they towed my car (the people who towed it said “oh we towed that a while ago, that is going to cost you” while laughing at me). I got a ride to pick up my car, in the ghetto, where I found it was broke into. The car towing company had a sign up saying they are not responsible for lost or stolen goods. So I had to pay to get my car back, pay a friend who had some of his stuff in my car which got stolen, and buy all new uniforms. On that underway my lost or stolen good losses were far more than I was paid (pre-taxes), so the sense that I was wasting my life for a piece of trash organization that did not value me was a strong and foul feeling.
Important lessons learned from the military: being an employee for a large organization is not a great idea, its worth working really hard for yourself so you don’t have to subject yourself to a job you do not like, distrust authority and assume it was ill gotten, try to create backup / contingency plans (the sub has 2 of almost everything), and half split when troubleshooting problems. 😀
Somehow I managed to live through years of the above sort of crap, but my will to live was diminished greatly as it piled up. If you recall the 2000 to 2002 timeframe there was the stock market meltdown and the terrorist attacks. But then layered on top of that there was lots of personal stuff like my grandpa dying & finding out that a relative got HIV. Also when the Russian Kursk sub sank we were nearby with a deep-sea rescue vehicle on our sub. We could have tried to save some of their sailors, but their country rejected the offer due to political ideology. I then thought about it some and realized that if the same thing happened the other way around our “capitalistic” economy likely would have found some way to squirm out of getting help from their “communistic” economy.
To say I lacked purpose or drive would be an understatement. To say I drank my sorrows away would also be one. Eventually (a little over 5 years into a 6 year contract) I got in trouble and the military and I departed ways. It left me with such a foul taste in my mouth that I created a whinge website about the experience. I think at the time my attitude was generally quite foul and that made it somewhat hard for me to get a job. Worse yet, at the end of 2002, when I got out of the military there was still looming worries to employers that people from the military might get called back to active duty and the economy was still fairly soft (from the downside of the overbuild related to y2k and .com boom). I think my first website (that rant one) went live sometime in January 2002. The same month I started a crappy awful embarrassing affiliate website.
My early ideas were not very good 😀
But I was learning and I was trying, and with no capital it was pretty obvious that search was a big driver of high quality traffic. Back then you could see the value different people put on different keywords via Overture. That seemed pretty cool and exciting. One of my lucky breaks with that online mall affiliate website I built was that I was a bad speller. So I was getting checks for thousands of dollars from the gambling and pharmacy pages on it – precisely because I didn’t know how to spell. I think about 1 check and I was hooked on the internet thing because I knew I still had so much to learn. Mostly these checks started coming in in the later part of the year.
But I appreciated my ignorance as well, so I got a job as a manager at an inventory service. I was on salary making about $35,000 a year. I think that started in about March of 2003. And I lasted something like 8 months before I quit to do the web full time. (After 5 months I gave my boss a 3 month notice so they had plenty of time to replace me). The lady who was sorta high up in the office often talked with my bosses boss and said that had I not mentioned I was quiting they were going to replace my boss with me. Thank goodness I quit when I did or else I would be a mid-level manager somewhere in corporate America right now. 😮
I participated at SearchGuild and eventually was a moderator there. In 2003 I helped stuff packets for SES Boston and scored a free pass that way. The main thing I learned from the show was what a big business search was. At the meeting before SEMPO was formed Danny Sullivan mentioned that he saw the phrase “search marketing” being what stuff might move to, and so I started a site on a horrible domain name search-marketing.info, where I took notes about SEO. It was sorta a 1998 unstyled site off the start. I hadn’t marketed it yet and that Gregory contacted me to market his headshots photography business. I said sure for something crazy like $100 and within 2 weeks he got a gig that paid him something like $2,500.
Around mid-2003 I noticed blogs were getting more inbound links than their quality alone would merit, so I decided it made sense to start one in SEO. At first I had a crappy one on my SMI site. In December of 2003 I started anew at SEO Book.com.
Google did the Florida Update in November of 2003 and I wrote an article about it which got really popular. And so I got more business than I could handle or knew how to handle. Then a month later back to obscurity 🙂
My theory was that one could sell a how to guide & at this point I was arrogant and naive enough to think I knew enough to create a great one (I think the first one was decent, but nowhere near what I could make today given over a half-decade of experience). I gave away the first version at the end of December, and based on that feedback started selling it in Feb. of 2004. I tied the idea of an ebook together with the blog, and it worked well.
The interesting thing about that domain name – seobook.com – was that it only cost $8 because most people thought you couldn’t have an up to date book about SEO. So that was my sales angle for pushing an ebook 😀
Other than the awful search-marketing.info I was a bit of a natural domainer from the start, buying stuff likeblackhatseo.com and whitehatseo.com for $8 each in 2003. The sad thing is I didn’t really push that line of thinking into other more lucrative fields. If I would have I either wouldn’t have time for this interview, or I would be writing it from some Caribbean island. 😀
But we have done quite well so far, and my wife met me through seobook.com … so I have no real complaints 😉
You say you were arrogant and naive enough to believe you could write a great book teaching people SEO. That’s a very common entrepreneurial trait, if we really understood the challenges and difficulties associated with what was being attempted we wouldn’t even bother.
You started SEO Book as a blog combined with an ebook. Was SEO Book your first ‘company’ or venture into self employment? How did you decide on that business model and what sort of adjustments have you made along the way and why?
One of the problems with existing businesses is that they know too much and know why some things won’t work. But that can be a bit of a curse, because sometimes things that *shouldn’t* work end up doing amazingly well due to a weird combination of luck, timing, and/or cumulative advantage (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html ).
I had an EIN before I knew anything about business (even though I didn’t need an EIN back then). I consider the money I made doing affiliate stuff and a smidge of consulting to be the beginning of my self employment. Though where I first learned a good bit about marketing was in high school. I sold baseball cards on the weekends and some weekends I would make upwards of $300 to $500 selling baseball cards. A lot of the concepts from that directly applied to search.
I didn’t do that well selling baseball cards off the start, but a guy who had worse cards than I did would sometimes walk buy with a fat wad of cash and show it off. And that was about all the teaching I needed to change my approach. Yes it was good to have featured high end sports cards that pulled in an audience (linkbait) and helped make what you look more appealing (publicity), but that is not what typically sold. What typically sold were cheaper cards, so to make it easier to buy I had them organized (categories) by player names (brands) so I would have stacks of them by player which people could look through. The reason player was the best way to organize cards was that people who liked certain players would be willing to pay a premium for them and while each individual card would be cheap, it could quickly add up to $30 or more. So I would go through people’s bargain bins that were fairly unorganized and re-organize them. I would also track trends and capitalize on those (just like finding new keywords & keyword themes). As soon as Dennis Rodman got traded to the Bulls I figured he would become popular. And then after I sold a few of his cards I bought hundreds more (mostly for 3 cents to a dime each) and then sold off most all of them for $1 each. I did flat rate pricing on the cards to make it easy…any card with a book value of $3 or less went for $1…so the spending could be more impulsive and not seem like something where they had to keep debating yes or no on, and so they wouldn’t have to keep asking the price on each card. And some people would start off with some of the $3 cards to feel like they were getting a steal, and then later end up buying a ton more of the lower valued cards too.
…back to SEO…
So with SEO I thought that as it grew more complex people would be interested in buying a starter’s guide. And I thought by sharing some free software/tools and frequently writing about the news I would gain awareness and become a better writer while building trust. The ebook model lasted for about 4 years. The only change I made to it the whole time was doubling its price from $39.99 to $79 a few months in because a mentor told me I should. 🙂
The big problem with the ebook model was that if a person bought the book and had a quick question then had another question then had… well I was trying to help them, but many people would try to abuse my kind nature. And when we got above 12,000 customers I sorta stopped scaling. Plus some people would ask for adendum updates…as though in addition to writing a 350 page book I was going to individualize the update sequences. It was sorta the market telling me I was using the wrong model. I met my wife and she was the one who pushed me to move more toward a recurring model, where I could charge recurring for recurring interaction, and use price to filter demand.
Then I transitioned from the ebook model to a membership website with more premium tools + training modules + newsletter + a great private community. It started off at $100 a month, but then I increased the price to $150 and was still getting overwhelmed and overloaded. We closed the site down to new members for nearly 3 months to sorta level out the site a bit, and then re-opened at $300 a month to curb demand a bit. Meanwhile in the background my wife also pushed us harder into publishing…which is a far more scalable business. That is part of the reason it made sense to close SEO Book to new subscribers for a while. The site is less than half our profits but like 90%+ of my work time.
The big adjustments we have made over the last couple years is we have hired close to a dozen people now. I have always been the “I can do everything myself” type, but as your hourly wage increases you can hit an inflection point with that mindset where you are just burning money. I sorta wished I had pushed harder inter hiring more people 3 or 4 years ago.
I also had 3 or 4 partnerships of various stripes over the years. My wife pushed me to sorta stop most of those and mostly focus on our stuff. I still have an ebook partnership I did with Wordtracker and do limited consulting with ClientsideSEM, but our model has been moving more and more away from discussing SEO toward leveraging what we know to build revenue streams.
Your wife keeps coming up. She seems to play a major role in your business these days. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a spouse in your opinion? You also mention some partners and mentors. Could you tell us about your experience with different partnerships and what made them work or not work? Who were/are your mentors and how did you find them?
Everyone has their own value systems and sets of experiences. The advantage of working with your spouse is that you both have the same goals. Its not like a partnership with a guy like Andy Hagans, where you know the guy will try to screw you over wherever he can whenever he can. The bad thing with working with a spouse is that you can each see different things and be exactly right, and yet not see what the other is seeing. My wife has done stuff that I didn’t think would work, but did awesome. And sometimes I feel like getting permission is a bit of a roadblock for lots of the things I want to do, but over time we have both become more understanding.
So I have had probably close to a half dozen or so partnerships. My wife and I and Geordie have recently launched PPCBlog.com (http://ppcblog.com) as a parallel site to SEO Book focused on AdWords & paid traffic sources. I think that partnership is going as well as one could hope for. Prior to that I did partnerships with a variety of folks. There was one site with Andy Hagans where I funded the project entirely, I sold the ads for years, etc. and then later he created a sister site, charged me an ad management fee (to cross-sell advertisers into his sister site – from which I got 0 revenues), gave his sister site free marketing on our main site (without asking me), then used data from the sister site to know when advertisers were about to cancel as an opportunity to sell me his stake in our partnered site (for what appeared at first) a bit cheap, but turned out to be more expensive after I figured out what had happened. I would say that is *easily* the worst partnership I have had with anyone…I think I am probably still on the hole on that site and he has pulled off well into 6 figures from it. I was a poor judge of character when I chose to work with him. I used to do some stuff with Patrick Gavin as well. I trusted him and for a few years it seemed like a wise call, but then that later on turned sour as well. He inspired many of my recent blog posts about working against yourself by giving market data to a competitor.
I also have done some high end SEO consulting with Scott Smith (http://thecaveman.org/) at Clientside SEM (http://www.clientsidesem.com/). That worked quite well because we both got great experience and learned a lot from it. We don’t do as much consulting as we did a few years back, but that helped me in a variety of ways. I brought in some great leads, which was a big piece of my value add. And I learned a lot from him in terms of him having about 20 years experience in the offline ad world before he became an SEO. And I think once companies like search engines and some of the other largest online businesses start hiring you to work for them it certainly boosts your confidence further because you not only gain the relevant experience, but when companies worth 10s of billions of Dollars are built entirely online and they are trusting their online strategy in part to you…well that is sorta being at the top of the game. I also did a partnership with Todd Malicoat (http://www.stuntdubl.com/) to do a webinar training series for PBS, and that was a lot of fun.
One of the higher yielding partnerships I have done where the end product came out way better than I anticipated was a partnership I did with Wordtracker to create a keyword research tips ebook (http://www.wordtracker.com/ebooks/kick-ass). Ken McGaffin (http://www.mcgaffin.com/) proposed the idea to me and they just did an incredible job of prodding me to further has out my ideas and format them in an excellent fashion. I believe Mark Nunney (http://www.seosite.co.uk/) did the formatting.
The one partnership over the years which has had the most potential, but also the most ups and downs, was with a friend named Daniel. He has some amazing leadership skills and could whip together a full service digital marketing agency in about a week. I told him Digg was pretty easy a couple years ago and in about 5 days he was routinely making the homepage with his promotions. The tricky part with him is he reminds me a lot of myself before I met my wife. Sorta up and down. Fiercely loyal, but then sometimes not dependable. I actually hate to use the word, but I sorta love him like a brother, and just hope that he is lucky enough to find someone to help level out the peaks and valleys a bit, like my wife did to/for me. 😀
Partnerships tend to work great when the 2 partners have different backgrounds and/or different strengths, such that they compliment each other. They also tend to work best when there is one clear leader in the partnership who is providing capital and high level direction and the other person is more like the head of human resources, get things done guru, and such. They tend to work less good when everyone is supposed to be equal in all ways and everyone is second guessing how much work or effort the other person put in. I think this was part of the problem with the partnership Andy and I had…for the most part after we built up the initial momentum the site was mostly hands off and just easy income. Neither he or I were putting much effort into the project, but for some reason he felt he deserved over half the profits even though I put up 100% of the capital AND brought in the revenue.
We also have a decent number of part time to full time employees for SEO Book and some of our other websites. I think the singular thing which determines if things will work out longterm is if a person has a can do or can’t do attitude. Hate to use this phrase, but some people need a boot stuck in their rear end and often. And those sorts of people (who need constant reminding of the same stuff over and over again) just don’t last long with us. But the type of people who are internally motivated and want to create great stuff can work great with us for years and years. We tend to be fairly flexible in letting people work the hours they want to. Of all the great employees we have ever had so far I think we have only lost one of them…a writer who could research and write an in depth entire site in like a week. I don’t know how she was that efficient…but I think she just got burned out on writing after a few years.
The way I look at stuff is everything has been done before, but you just have to figure out a new spin on it or a new format to share the story or idea.
As far as mentors go…my mom (taught me to work hard), my wife (teaches me how to love), Tim Berners-Lee (built the web…without which we wouldn’t be having this conversation), Seth Godin (is an aggressive and viral marketer who promotes being remarkable, while using soft sell to do it), and a crusty old SEO who goes by the nickname of NFFC (he found me and taught me a lot about business & SEO for free).
I’d like to move into SEO Book and you today. As far as I understand SEO Book has become a subscription model and a private community. This goes somewhat in the face of the macro trends of openness and free information. Based off your subscription numbers I have to assume there is a lot of value behind those doors and people will always be willing to pay for valuable information. I am curious what your opinion is of these business models in the long run and why it works for some industries (you) and not for others (most of the major media outlets)? How do you create sustainable competitive advantage(s) online?
This is actually a topic which is well discussed inside our community. 🙂
eHow doesn’t make hundreds of millions of Dollars a year by making the web a better place. As the search results become more McDonald’s oriented (average to low quality garbage that is maybe good enough for the average person with a bit of interest) it leaves people longing for something more & something deeper. Free media promotes noise for the sake of noise because to make the free model work you need lots of attention, so you have a large ad base and so you can get premium brand advertisers interested.
And free content often has other hidden costs. One example from a few years back was how the media would put on defense contractors to talk about the war in Iraq, and those people would state stuff to the population they thought to be wrong just so they could keep gaining access to confidential state secrets and leverage them for profits. In other words they were being paid to lie. Some people thought they were being told the truth while the United States government was actively conspiring to misinform them. Of course this truth didn’t come out until years later…after the war was well underway and then we couldn’t leave because we need to “support our troops” (whatever that means).
Somehow a bunch of bankers just created trillions of Dollars of financial damage and yet not a single one of them has went to jail. If the media was doing their job their would be enough public understanding of the issues and enough public outrage that the citizens of the United States would demand those bankers face jail time for the accounting control fraud, mortgage fraud, securities fraud, etc. etc. etc.
But the role of the media is not to inform the citizens. It is to make citizens feel they are being informed while they are being distracted and misled and being sold into someone else’s business interests. That sounds cynical, but if you watch films like Manufacturing Consent you will see how the game is played. Who wants to pay to be fed a bunch of misinformed garbage? Their product is worthless and they are in a saturated market.
Now you will notice that the financial press doesn’t have any trouble getting people to pay for information, and part of the reason that works is they cater to people who are of high net worth. And those people don’t mind paying because they don’t want to waste their time reading the misinformed trash which is the mainstream media.
I view our site sorta like the financial press, but for the SEO industry. You can pay to get the honest truth on how stuff works & our hypothesis as to why, without all the positioning and posturing that is core to public relations and misinforming people to sell (once you are a customer we don’t offer weekly or monthly upsell pitches like so many do). I think the only commercial offerings I have promoted somewhat aggressively were our new PPC Blog membership site that we launched with Geordie & an ebook about keyword research I launched with Wordtracker. But even on that keyword research ebook I offered a lot of our paying customers a refund for their purchase of it after they had been with us numerous months and/or in exchange for feedback on our website.
The community aspect is quite powerful too because the price filter prevents the bottom 90% of the market from entering (which keeps noise and pollution out), while allowing relationships to blossom amongst some of the top 10%. And what sets us apart from say the financial press is not only the focus on one specific niche, but also the interactive nature of how we give feedback to our customers. Being a member of our forum is sorta like buying an informal consultation from many experts at once. And because the customers tend to be fairly successful quite often a new problem to one customer is an old problem that another customer faced, and a person who has worked through your exact same issues can give you better context about what your options are and what to do than a single person who tries to be a know-it-all. Some of our competitors also try to answer their customer’s questions, but through a command-and-control centralized sort of way…and generally our customers give far better answers than their employees do.
A lot of that comes down to working hard and leading by example. If people can tell you are working hard and are trying to help people that is sort of contagious … and so not only our staff and moderators, but also our customers do a great job of helping each other. There are other sites that are larger, but I can’t think of any which are more helpful & interactive. With our site people are not just paying for “information” but rather an interactive experience & involvement in a community.
I think the key to creating a sustainable competitive advantage (for me) is to do my best sharing what I know and attracting the right kinds of customers. If your customers are getting far more value than what they are paying you then they will stick with it longterm. I have only had about 3 days off in the last couple years, but it is not hard for me to work almost every day because our site is fun to work on and I both teach and learn a lot from it.
That’s a very interesting insight that you believe search results are becoming ‘McDonald’s oriented.’ Demand Media (eHow) certainly has one business model of mass mediocre content while some sites have attempted to get the best content in a niche. One of your ‘favorite’ companies, Mahalo, is somewhere in-between (maybe?). As an SEO, does this trend towards McDonaldization make things easier or more difficult? Is there a right and wrong position to be taking for the long run in your mind and why?
There is no one right way to do business. Some businesses exist to suck down investor money while building publicity for the founder. Some businesses exist to create a bag of smoke that looks good from afar, which can be sold to a greater fool, and then quickly crumbles after the sale. Some businesses exist with hope/intent to build real tangible longterm value and exist for years and years or decades and decades.
Obviously a lot of the thin arbitrage plays are damaging to the ecosystem as a whole, but until search engines stop funding it and/or stop ranking it, we have to expect that some opportunist will gladly cash in on the opportunity. And one man’s spam is another man’s life work. Some people live in a black and white world where *even* thinking of SEO is spam, and those people don’t likely view me in a positive light.
My general view is this…if something is getting saturated it is probably getting saturated because it is highly profitable, so you might be able to pick off bits and pieces following a similar strategy with a tighter focus. But at the same time if a certain business model is getting saturated then it might be opening up opportunity for people who run in the opposite direction. The more garbage there is in the search results the more appealing paid and/or walled off communities might become. On the iPhone search is being fragmented across many apps. Who is to say that as the web evolves something similar couldn’t happen online as well?
And generally my rule of thumb with content business models is you want to be really cheap or really expensive…meaning the massed produced garbage has a good chance to be profitable and the expert level content has a chance to be profitable, but if you are somewhere in the middle the lack of scale + lack of remarkability + high cost structure will end up killing you. This is something many of the bloated inefficient mainstream media companies are experiencing right now.
Speaking of scaling, you’ve touched upon it briefly a couple times. You said you were the ‘I can do everything myself’ type. You clearly realized at some point along the way that you needed help. Could you tell us a bit about that moment: what made you hire your first staff member, how did you learn to manage a team, and what would you do differently if you had to do it again? What is the biggest problem you’ve faced with scaling people?
Our first full time staff member was one left over from a partnership that we had which ended a couple years ago. She was an amazingly efficient worker and perhaps even moreso than I am!!! The big problem with her was that we had it soooo good that our bar was set very high, and we just didn’t push hard into hiring because she was so efficient and few could compare.
Next after that would be our programmer, who we hired a couple years ago. For a few months it was project by project, but then we shifted into full time. He is every bit as efficient as I am and has experience both with programming and as a network administrator…so he really rounds out our company nicely. We also have a full time staff member and a part time staff member working editorial for SEO Book. By the time we really started scaling at all on the employee front we were not in a position of “OMG where will the cashflow come from” so much as we were in a position of “OMG there is not enough time to keep up with everything.”
And a lot of the scaling has been mostly my choice because I am the one who works 16 to 18 hours many days. I know there are no more hours for me to work, and so I see anything that frees up some of my time as very valuable. If I have 20% more time that gives me time to think about high level strategy, changing online trends in publishing & search, and gives us time to launch some more fairly passive projects. We might start scaling up more aggressively toward the end of this year, but if we do my wife will likely manage most of those people because I already manage about a dozen full time workers, part time workers, and project based freelancers. Once more we are sorta running into issues with scale, and my wife will likely be the one who solves it.
At this point my wife is far more conservative than I am with scaling though. I am a bit addicted to buying great domain names. Some of the projects have been home runs. Others have been so so. And yet others are still new but are being groomed and aged for future plans. On the whole we have done great, but it is easy to see almost any new investment as a loss until the site is a year or 2 old. When I first started using that sort of approach was sometime in the 2007 time-frame. It seemed as though I was too aggressive that year, but the big reason we have so much opportunity today was because we bet big and bet correctly back then.
I wouldn’t say that I really “manage a team” so much as I manage a bunch of individuals who work on various projects. Mostly people work on different roles/projects/websites where they don’t have to interact heavily with one another. The end result looks far more cohesive than the parts being bolted together. A large part of my management approach is to create strategy guides which outline specific tasks, how to do them, why they work, and how they can be improved. Beyond that I tend to be quite lax with management unless I see one of our workers slipping and headed in the wrong direction. Then I give a bit of feedback, highlight some of the things they have done great in the past, and highlight how the recent thing wasn’t up to the standards they set earlier.
Later this year I hope that (with a large dose of my wife’s help / with her being THE manager) that we can indeed switch a lot of our strategies more into the integrated team approach. Since we haven’t tried the fully integrated approach I am not even fully aware of all the mistakes we might be making and what inefficiencies we will clear up by trying that sort of work, but I imagine that having an in-house designer & graphics person and an in-house programmer (who we can give feedback to in real-time) will allow us to create bettered featured content that is easier to promote more aggressively. My current programmer and I often say “I wish we were closer” so we could hash through things better. I don’t think we do a bad job day to day because he is quite bright and does great work, but sometimes we both think the big picture longterm view would be clearer if we could hash more things out in person. And even on the other work which we are not having done in-house I still feel we are learning from it such that if/when we do more stuff in-house we are that much more prepared to make good decisions.
I should also add that we also use services like 99designs and theme forest and open source software like WordPress which offers some good plugins. So in some ways we also have a lesser need for management because we allow the marketplace to manage some of the easy-to-use and scalable opportunities made available to us.
We’ve touched on domain names a few times for various reasons. You come from a very different background than most of the people I talk to on a day to day basis about domain names. From your perspective what makes a domain name valuable? What do you think of the current system for domain names with regards to registration and aftermarket sales?
I think a domain name is valuable if it is short, memorable & brandable, or if it matches an existing set of demand. So if a lot of people are already searching for “credit cards” then CreditCards.com would be a good domain to own. In fact, it is one of the few keyword domain names that is strong enough that I have seen numerous television ads marketing it. Other extensions might also have significant value as well. But they typically trade at a significant discount to the .com price because they don’t really get many type ins. Domains which are popularly used amongst many businesses and non-profits (say .com, .net, and .org) are likely typically worth more than lesser extensions like .biz and .info. And a .de domain focused on the German market or a .fr the French or a .co.uk the UK are also quite powerful because people (and thus navigational tools like search engines) have an affinity for that which is well known, and local is a strong affinity signal to someone in a specific country-based market. I don’t yet do much with foreign domains because I just don’t know as much about those markets.
As far as buying aftermarket domains goes, I think many domain owners are really waiting for someone who is looking to sharply overpay for what they have. Todd Malicoat had a great post on this front recently (http://www.stuntdubl.com/2010/04/07/domain-appraisal-myths/ ). But the names really are all over the map. Like I bought one .org for a couple thousand Dollars years after the .net went for like 25x that amount. How was that arbitrage opportunity available in 2008 to an SEO turned domainer? I have no idea. And I have bought some .orgs and/or .nets only to find that with the right approach I was able to get the .com for around the same price. Like I mentioned earlier…prices are all over the map.
The one spot I buy *a lot* from is BuyDomains. They are easy to deal with and most of their names are priced to sell (so they can go win more names at auction and keep expanding their inventory). If you are patient and/or have tools to look through them, domain auctions can work well too. If it hadn’t been for halverez I would have got a couple domains worth 5 figures each for $60 each (but they only cost me a couple hundred anyhow). I don’t do the domain auctions as much as I would like to (because I spend so much time building out the names I do have + running our SEO book community), but I would say something like 90%+ of my domain buying is from BuyDomains or domain auctions. And I guess part of the reason I view some domains as way overpriced is because I have got some at great prices…and when you get a domain name at about 5% of its market value it makes it hard to go out and buy others for 100% unless you are quite certain that the market is under-estimating the potential of that keyword and/or industry. Everything is relative. What is overpriced to one person is a cheap steal to the next, etc.
You work 16-18 hours a day, how do you stay focused and motivated? I can only speak from personal experience (and perhaps infer from all the discussion on the subject), but I can only manage to work that many hours a day for so long before burning out, losing motivation or simply giving up on the idea. What is your secret?
Well I think that number may have been slightly exaggerated by recent experience as I just helped launch PPCBlog and have really been putting in mega hours keeping up with everything else and launching that. Site launches are like that, even if you don’t do a ton of affiliate driven hype and stuff. And then you have to keep adding value to what you are doing so people know you are in it for the long haul & so that they will stay with it. I was so burned out that I think I slept maybe about 18 hours in a 22 hour period yesterday…so that helped restore me. 🙂
I probably work closer to 13 or 14 hours most weekdays, and maybe 10 to 12 hours on average weekend days. But part of what I call work is also just reading and learning and observing…so a lot of it might not seem or feel like work even though doing it helps me out & helps grow our revenues. My mom worked hard & long hours. So a lot of my work ethic stems from watching her. But another thing that can help motivate you is when you see your work helping others out. Like there are moments in our SEO forums where you can see some people really start to get it and things click and you really just ended up helping change someone’s life for the better. Even more motivating is when you can help the people you know out.
Recently I helped my mom out a bit. After I told my wife it was doing pretty good she asked why can’t we help her mom too. So I was like sure & recently we did just that. The hard part of making money just to make money is that if you live well below your means you don’t sense the value of the additional returns (due to the marginal law of utility, and because the political system is corrupted to bias the monetary system toward inflation such that you are supposed to put your savings into a rigged casino so others can steal it from you). But when you help out family that helps provide a bit more in the sense of purpose department & motivates you to work harder.
About half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day ( http://newsjunkiepost.com/2010/04/15/poverty-half-the-world-lives-on-less-than-2-50-a-day/ ). Billions more are debt slaves. The web enabled many people to escape those issues, and it will enable many more.
But the WWW is younger than I am, so largely people like me were lucky with timing and location. But over time I would suspect that as the web grows more competitive, yields will drop and returns will become scarcer. I know that SEO is a zero sum game. So if you are not putting in effort but are making a good amount of cash then the market is working against you to eradicate your revenues. That is motivation to keep working hard! And stuff will likely be much harder 5 years from now than today, much as today my approach is more capital intensive and expensive than what I was doing 5 years ago. One line of thinking I use is that a day of work today is worth a week of work in a decade. It might not be entirely accurate, but it helps me focus on here and now. You either evolve with the game or become a relic. Hugh recently had a great cartoon which describes my sentiment & approach toward work “I work very hard doing what I love so that I don’t have to work very hard doing what I hate.” http://www.gapingvoidgallery.com/product_info.php?products_id=1564
If you were a web/tech startup today with little to no funding, what would be the critical decisions/actions to make when thinking about seo and balancing it with all other considerations?
Off the start I think it is important to understand many of the technical limitations and ensure that your site is easily accessible (not putting everything in frames, not putting information pages in ajax when they don’t need to be, the ability to edit content and page titles on a per page basis, etc.). Beyond that if you are a new start up my general philosophy is that most of your SEO strategy should be public relations driven…where you get lots of links by being remarkable and getting press coverage. Once you have the PageRank / link equity / link diversity you can always re-shift your on-site SEO strategy. It is best if you have a lot of on-site stuff laid out as best you can at launch day, but the truth is businesses change and so do the markets they are built on. So over time your priorities and target keywords will change. Make sure you install analytics day 1 so you can track your progress. If you see something that is working particularly well for you in terms of driving links and/or traffic then lean into it harder until it stops producing those great returns.
Thank you Aaron. It has been a true pleasure to pick your brain and be able to discuss so many things in depth with you.